Category Archives: Machines & Maintenance

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.