Monthly Archives: January 2013

iPad: the most awesome pilot aid — ever

Had a phone conversation a week or so ago with a pilot interested in purchasing an iPad for use as an electronic flight bag while flying. His questions made me realize there’s an appetite out there for information and given that Transport Canada just yesterday issued an update to its circular about EFBs, now seems like a particularly apt time to fill in some blanks.

I use an iPad 2 every time I fly, and I consider it, simply put, the most miraculous enhancement to aviation since the VHF radio. I consider that to be true whether you fly a Piper Cub or an Airbus A380.

Screen shot from my iPad of the FltPlan moving map GPS.

Screen shot from my iPad of FltPlan’s moving map GPS. Present location is shown by the little blue airplane.

What can’t it do? It’s a weather station, a GPS navigation tool, a flight planning device, a storage device for pilot operating handbooks, operations manuals, SOPs, NavCanada and Transport Canada documents such as the AIM. It will display approach plates and VFR and IFR navigation charts. And when you’re through flying for the day and parked in a hotel or your home, it does all the things a computer will do, and more besides: e-mail, twitter, web browser, gaming platform, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

All the big airlines are moving to iPad use. American Airlines was the pioneer and trail blazed a path through the FAA red tape. Canadian airlines have been slower, but they’re all headed in that direction. The advantage is all their operations manuals, SOPs, etc., can be stored on the iPad, a tremendous savings in weight and, therefore, fuel.

These days I’m usually flying a 172. When I have a mission to do, the first thing I do is reach for my iPad. I use it to check the weather, NOTAMS, and then with some simple data entry — a departure point, arrival point, the time I intend to fly, number of passengers and altitude — it generates a boffo flight plan and weight and balance a split second after hitting enter. It automatically corrects track for wind and even points out the gains and losses in speed and fuel burn at various optional altitudes, All can be easily updated if the flight parameters change. The flight plan can then be submitted electronically to ATC.

Once in the airplane i strap the iPad to my knee, just like a knee board, using a third-part velcro case I bought on-line. It then becomes a remarkable moving-map GPS unit, geo-referencing my airplane on a VFR or IFR chart (which I can change in an instant). Need more detail? You can pinch-zoom on the chart.

Then, let’s say I need information about an airport en route or prior to approach. A couple of taps and there’s all the data at my fingertips. Another tap and I’m back to the GPS.


Screen shot from my iPad of a CAP approach plate for the ILS 26 at CYKF.

The real beauty is if you fly IFR. The iPad display happens to be identical in size to NavCanada’s CAP approach plates. So you can have plates available for every airport in the country (or the continent, for that matter), all stored on your knee. No more heavy books to lug or flip through. And when it comes time to update them? Press a couple buttons and, presto, new charts loaded. Even better? They’re free.

If you fly in the U.S., it gets even better. There, the approach plates will geo-reference as you fly the approach. So you can check your progress through the approach on the plate as you fly it in real time. Delicious, no?

When I was a flight attendant at WestJet I’d show my iPad, and what it can do, to 737 pilots and their mouths would drop in amazement. It gives small operators the kind of functionality that previously could only be found in expensive avionics arrays on large commercial aircraft.

If you’re going to buy, and I’d heartily recommend doing so, here are some things to consider:

  • Get the 3G capability. Yes, it will cost more, but it will significantly enhance what the device can do for aviation. Apps such as ForeFlight Mobile (more on it shortly) work better if you have 3G. As well, if you’re at a location with no wifi access, such as a small or remote airport, 3G will allow you to update your flight plan and check weather. Otherwise, you’re stuck.
  • Get a Bad Elf dongle. It’s about the size of a quarter and plugs into the iPad’s charging port. It significantly enhances the internal GPS to give you better reliability and WAAS-level accuracy. It costs about $100.

By far the best app for the iPad, in my opinion, is made by ForeFlight. Their web site has a terrific explanation of the iPad, real-time weather additions, which iPad to get and how the Bad Elf dongle works and why it’s necessary. There is subscription required to use the app.

I use an app called FltPlan. It’s free and there’s no subscription. It has a good flight planning function and you can download Canadian approach plates and IFR charts within the app. Canadian VFR charts aren’t yet available but NavCanada says they’re coming soon. In the meantime, if you live reasonably close to the U.S. border, you can get by using the digital version of the U.S. charts that spill into Canada. You would, of course, be required to have a paper version of the appropriate Canadian chart as your primary reference if you were flying in Canadian airspace.

If you’re a bit overwhelmed, head to ForeFlight’s web site. It’s a terrific place to start.




Is debacle too strong a word for the 787? Perhaps not

Well I certainly didn’t anticipate writing about Boeing’s 787 problems two days in a row but it’s impossible not to do so in the wake of the eye-popping developments last night.


All Nippon Airways Boeing 787 with its evacuation slides deployed after an emergency landing in Japan.

For those who haven’t yet heard, All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines yesterday grounded their 787 Dreamliner fleets — collectively 24 aircraft in all and nearly half of all 787 deliveries made so far — in the wake of an emergency landing by an ANA flight at Takamatsu airport in western Japan.

ANA said the aircraft’s pilots received a cockpit message indicating battery problems. A burning smell was additionally detected in the cockpit and cabin. All 129 passengers and eight crew members evacuated safely using the emergency slides.

The episode comes in the wake of a decision last Friday by the FAA to conduct a review of the airliner and its certification after a litany of problems, many of them related to the lithium-ion battery technology the aircraft. Here’s a link to a comprehensive list of recent snags from Britain’s Telegraph newspaper.

Boeing last night tweeted this response: “We’re aware of the ANA 787 diversion in Japan. We will be working with ANA and the authorities to determine what happened and why.”

That the batteries once again appear to have caused a problem is striking. As I wrote in yesterday’s post, the airplane makes use of battery technology in place of hydraulics as a weight-saving measure (the weight saving is one of the reasons the airplane is said to be 20 per cent more fuel efficient than other aircraft of its size). I came across a tweet today from Stephen Trimble (@FG_STrim), an aviation reporter and editor at, who says a 787 lithium battery caught fire in 2006 and — ehem — burned down an office building.

By the way, here’s a picture, in a story written by Stephen Trimble, released by the NTSB in the U.S., showing the charred battery box from an incident last week involving a JAL flight at Boston’s Logan Airport. Clearly the battery was on fire.

I received training on extinguishing Lithium-ion battery fires when I was a flight attendant. They’re commonly used as a power source for laptop computers and cell phones. When a li-ion battery has what’s called a thermal runaway and overheats, the result is nasty. And cell phone batteries have had precisely these kinds of runaways on aircraft before. In fact there was one in 2011 in Australia. Temperatures can go as high as 1,110 F. The important first response is to cool the battery using water.

More from twitter: Josh Newman (@joshuan542), who is studying to be an AME in the UK, sent me a message pointing out that ANA and JAL use the same maintenance company. Worth noting, given the majority of the 787 problems have come from those two airlines. That said, those two airlines also have more of the aircraft than any other operator thus far.

By the way, Air Canada has ordered 37 787s so far. Here’s a link to a list of 787 customers.

No one at this point would be surprised if the entire 787 fleet was grounded until the FAA completes its review. Increasingly, it would appear the FAA made a prudent decision last week and it’s important for Boeing to respond as openly and transparently as possible and not simply assert the airplane is safe. Clearly it’s not quite.

The reason Boeing’s 787 needs a formal review

imagesSo I went back and forth all weekend trying to make my mind up about whether or not this Boeing 787 tempest was worth some discussion or no.

For those who missed it, the FAA on Friday announced it was going to conduct “a comprehensive review” of the Boeing 787 systems and a “sweeping evaluation of the way Boeing designs, manufactures and assembles the aircraft.”

In aviation circles, this is a big deal, and something that doesn’t happen very often. It illustrates just how many problems have emerged with the new airplane recently; as of Friday, Reuters said there had been approximately 10 events in the span of six weeks. The list from last week, which I’ve more-or-less cut-and-pasted from two L.A. Times stories and a story from the New York Times, looked like this:

  • A smoldering battery fire related to the auxiliary power unit, discovered Dec. 7 on the underbelly of a 787 operated by Japan Airlines.
  • On the same day, a United Airlines Dreamliner flight from Houston to Newark, N.J., was diverted to New Orleans after an electrical problem emerged mid-flight. Qatar Airways, which had accepted delivery of a Dreamliner a month earlier, grounded the aircraft for the same problem that United experienced.
  • Last Friday a crack on the cockpit windscreen on an All Nippon Airways 787 was discovered. The plane landed safety but its return trip to Tokyo was canceled.
  • On the same day, oil was discovered leaking from an engine on another All Nippon Airways 787.
  • Last Wednesday, All Nippon cancelled a 787 flight after a computer mistakenly showed problems with the aircraft’s brakes.
  • Last Tuesday, a fuel leak forced a 787 operated by Japan Airlines to return to its gate minutes before taking off from Boston.

Quite the list, no doubt. But by Sunday night I finally decided it wasn’t worth adding my two cents. My thinking was this: Teething problems on a new airplane are not new, particularly on one which has introduced, as the 787 has, so many new technologies. I read remarks from Boeing engineers who said the 747 went through the same sort of process when it was introduced, and thought to myself, OK, they’ll sort it out, and the FAA review is just good safety management.

And then yesterday, Monday, yet another problem emerged on a Japan Airlines 787: An inspection Sunday revealed that the same 787 which leaked fuel in Boston more than a week ago had spilled another 100 litres of Jet A at Narita Airport outside of Tokyo.

That event snapped me awake and made me decide something important was at stake and needs discussion, and I’m not talking about last week’s problems or the FAA review, per se.

In my time as a journalist and just a guy following current events, I’ve come across countless examples of accidents or near-accidents unfolding from organizations that once considered themselves bullet-proof.

The episodes that immediately came to mind were the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters. They shared a common thread: Arrogance, indifference, procedural creep.

Boeing has had a pretty good ride of late. It’s order sheet is fat. It’s building airplanes as fast as it can, airplanes that are considered state of the art. The Dreamliner, as it’s known, has introduced lightweight carbon-fibre construction and replaced much of an aircraft’s traditional hydraulically actuated systems with electrical systems using lithium-ion batteries. The ensuing weight reduction has generated 20% fuel savings compared to an older airplane seating as many people (210 to 290, depending on configuration). It’s an enormous technological leap and understandably, airlines, many of them struggling financially, are lining up to buy them.

And you know what? That’s precisely when you put the brakes on and have a good look-see.

Nobody would (yet) suggest Boeing doesn’t manufacture a fine product or that the Dreamliner isn’t a remarkable airplane. They do and it is.

But it could very well be that a company going hell-bent-for-leather, one under pressure to get aircraft out the door (the first aircraft was delivered in September of 2011, more than three years late, and then production went into high gear and last year the company built 46) misses something. Or that the FAA, during the “unprecedented” certification process,  misses something. People and processes aren’t perfect, as aviation has proven again and again and again.

There was a terrific quote posted online by Time magazine on Jan. 11:

“'[Boeing] may have gone too far, too fast in building 46 planes,’ says Richard Aboulafia, vice president of Teal Group, an aerospace and defense industry market analysis firm. ‘You need the proper cadence, that proper manufacturing rhythm.’ Boeing is clearly a sophisticated and experienced producer, but going from zero to 46 with this much innovation is just inviting glitches, says Aboulafia.”

So why not have another look? For silly. Yes, it will cost Boeing and the FAA some money. And why not think of that as an investment rather than a cost? After all, if one of those airplanes has a serious safety episode, one that results in the loss of life, the cost, in human and financial terms, will make the review ordered last Friday by the FAA look like so much pocket change.

Guns, coyotes and pickups: pushing small tin north of 60

photoIf you want to work flying a big piece of aluminum in Canada then you pretty much have to do a time-building apprenticeship at a little airline up north. How far up north? Well, as a senior WestJet pilot once said to me: “So far up north that Timmins seems like it’s located in the balmy south.”

Which is precisely the reason I found myself in northern Saskatchewan last autumn working for a small airline.

The understanding when I took the job was that I’d be working as a dispatcher for a few weeks, maybe a couple months, until a spot on the flight line came open. It soon became apparent, however, that a few weeks was, in fact, going to wind up as six or seven months.

I have a wife and two young kids who remained in southern Ontario. We did the math and quickly realized that the cost-benefit analysis of me working 3,500 kilometers northwest wasn’t working for us. It was one thing to absorb the immense challenge of being away, and the load my absence put on my loved-one, if I was flying and building time. It was quite another to spend a winter in the near-Arctic behind a desk or fuelling airplanes. To make a long story short, two months after I started, I pointed the Edsel south-east and a three-day drive later, was happily back in Kitchener.

Those two months, however, were as rich as they come, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. Met some great people, some remarkable characters and some terrific pilots. Bear, moose and deer sightings were as common as New York taxi cabs. And frankly experiencing the culture of a small, northern operator is something every Canadian pilot needs to witness first hand. You will see some things you won’t see everyday at CYYZ.

Fer instance.

It’s a Friday afternoon. All the flights are back. The airport is dead quiet. I’m standing in the reception area with a remote in my hand, at the tail end of a day on the dispatch desk, staring up at the television in the corner and watching CBC news, killing a few minutes before I lock up and close.

Then. BANG!


I now am figuratively hanging onto the ceiling tiles by my fingernails, trying to figure out (a) what the noise and (b) where it’s coming from.

Then again. BANG, BANG. BANG, BANG.

I turn, in a near panic, my heart in my mouth, and there, standing outside, knocking on the window, is one of the senior pilots — let’s just say his name is Ron — and he is holding in his left hand a coyote by the tail, dripping blood, and in his right is a hunting rifle. He is looking at me through the window wearing a cat-ate-the-canary grin.

Here’s the thing. In a lineup of people to play Daniel Boone, I’d be the one in Doc Martins,, designer glasses, sipping a dark-roast latte. My idea of wilderness is everything north of Toronto’s Steeles Avenue. I was smart enough to know then and there I wasn’t in Kansas any more.

The coyote was spotted when Ron was landing that late afternoon. Wildlife on the runways, I was learning, is a common thing up north and can be a serious hazard. A few days earlier there was another coyote sighting. The company tug, a bonnet-less jeep, was promptly produced, and a dispatcher, three pilots and the aircraft groomer, all armed to the teeth, loaded up up and set out to do battle. The silhouette of the vehicle rolling up and down the runway, weapons pointing every direction, reminded me of a scene from Mogadishu.

For most of the pilots working there, that kind of thing was just business as usual. Most were from western Canada and rural life, guns, pickup trucks, big dogs, well, that’s just the way folks live. For me, well, I can feel the post-traumatic-stress yips coming on even now.

Somebody please get me a tall, non-fat, cappuccino.












A site that’s outta sight

theflyingpinto-logoOne of the best, if not the best, flight attendant blog I’ve come across so far belongs to Sara Keagle, who flies for a major U.S. airline.

Sara’s site is called The Flying Pinto, and it’s a veritable traveller’s Swiss Army Knife: Great stories, links to great travel gear (with discount coupons), a weekly podcast for FAs and would-be FAs, and can’t-miss tips for travelling and travelling with kids. The site is smart, upbeat and well worth the visit. You can also find Sara on Twitter @theflyingpinto.

Sara last week penned a terrific piece on Huffington Post about why being a flight attendant is a great job. She presents seven reasons, all of them spot on. In fact, as I read, I started to have little pangs about my former life in the cabin with WestJet. As I mentioned in a couple of  posts last week, being a flight attendant is full of very real challenges and it wasn’t for me, but there was, without question, big upside to FA life, and Sara hits them all.

Anyway. Visit Your day will be better.