Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Embracing Hi-Tech

Since last April, I've logged around 300 hours of flight time and probably twice as many hours of ground training using the iPad. While the iPad isn't perfect, I've found it invaluable as:
electronic flight bag
note pad
book library
video player
E6B calculator
credit card reader, and more.

I can access practical test standards, present a lesson, quickly calculate aircraft weight and balance, access aircraft checklists, and get weather briefings. Sure it's taken some learning and adapting on my part, but the iPad has made me a more effective and efficient instructor (multi-tasking offered by the latest iOS4.2 is a big help, by the way). My students see me using an iPad, see its capabilities, and naturally test the waters by asking if they should be using one, too. My qualified answer is "Sure, if you want to."

Spare the Rod

Some instructors and pilots see this permissive attitude as heretical. It's a common practice for instructors to deprive student pilots of access to certain equipment as a way to focus their attention and promote learning in a scenario-based teaching approach. A student who spends too much time looking at their instruments instead of outside the cockpit might be helped by the instructor covering up those instruments. When first learning cross-country navigation, it's common for students to  navigate using a chart, the magnetic compass, and prominent landmarks before learning to use a GPS receiver or other radio navigation systems. Introducing pilotage as the student's primary mode is crucial because, GPS or not, they must ultimately be able to locate unfamiliar airports with their eyes. But this does not mean that all flight instruments are to be avoided or that GPS usage will make a pilot incompetent.

Where things go South is when instructors become obsessed with thinking that if some deprivation is good, more must be better. This can take the form of "When I was a young pilot, no one used a headset, my instructor smoked cigars inside the plane, and I had to navigate using compass, a stopwatch, and with one hand tied behind my back."


Meanwhile, back in the real world, most new training aircraft come equipped with GPS and autopilots, yet some instructors still pride themselves on refusing to let students use this equipment - ever. Pilots need to recognize this for what it is: kooky talk. Even the FAA requires instructors bestowing solo cross-country privileges on a student (14 CFR 61.93(e)(8)) to ensure the student is proficient with:
Procedures for operating the instruments and equipment installed in the aircraft to be flown, including recognition and use of the proper operational procedures and indications.

Getting Qualified

This gets to the qualified part of my permissive approach: Pilots must show they can competently use any equipment in the plane, understand the limitations of the equipment, have a viable back-up strategy if the equipment fails, and demonstrate they are proficient using the back-up strategy and that their piloting performance is not adversely affected. This applies to everything installed in the plane and, by extension, to any equipment the student decides to bring with them: E6B slide rule, electronic E6B, fancy calculator watch, handheld GPS, or iPad (or any EFB for that matter).

The obvious back-up for an iPad/EFB is a selection of paper charts and a good scenario for EFB users is the simulated failure of their treasured device. It's reassuring to know that one can still locate, unfold, and use a paper chart, or thumb through an Airport/Facilities Directory, or locate a chart in a terminal procedures book. If you don't use a skill, you'll lose that skill.

I teach student pilots to use the autopilot, if one's installed in the airplane and that includes recovering from a runaway trim scenario. Of course they must be proficient at hand flying, but using the autopilot to give them a breather on long flights can actually enhance learning and if it reduces fatigue, it's the safe thing to do. Flying with an autopilot isn't cheating, it's a different kind of flying that need to be understood and practiced. A student of mine was about to go for his check ride recently and he asked if he could use the autopilot while planning his in-flight diversion. My response was "Sure, tell the examiner what you're doing. Of course he may tell you that you may not use the autopilot ..."

Share the Wealth

There's more and more cool stuff out there everyday and a lot of it, used intelligently, can make flying safer, easier, cheaper, and more enjoyable. New stuff needs to be properly learned, understood, and managed. And that means instructors need to stay current and learn the new stuff rather than steadfastly embracing old school. From the beginning, change has defined aviation and the new stuff just keeps coming. Thankfully, there's no turning back.


IFR Pilot said...


Thanks for this. I've been toying with replacing my Sony PRS-505, which I use exclusively for approach charts, with an iPad. This would be my first foray into the Mac world. Would appreciate any insights you can share on which of the various models you think is best suited as an EFB, particularly whether the 3G version is worth the added price to purchase and use each month.

IFR Pilot
Cleveland, OH

John Ewing said...

I purchased a non-3G 32GB iPad. With my modest means I simply couldn't (and can't) afford another data contract. Most everywhere I fly there is WiFi, except recently at the Palo Alto airport - How can the quintessential Silicon Valley airport not have WiFi?

In retrospect, the 32GB version seems a bit like overkill. I have a lot of stuff on my iPad and have barely used 8GB of the space available. I don't have music or videos to speak of on my unit, but plenty of charts and PDF files.

People I know who have the 3G version seem happy with it, so your mileage may vary. For my money, a 16GB WiFi version should be just fine for most pilots. There's no GPS in the WiFi version, but I mean really: Who's going to lay their bets on an iPad's GPS for positional information? Not me ...

Of course, the 2nd generation iPad is rumored to be in the works for a Feb 2011 release.

Ron said...

The big problem with students training in airplanes with complex avionics is that, as you noted, the student cannot be cut loose until they understand all that equipment. That means longer training times, and more expense.

There are certainly those who pick up computers quickly and won't be slowed down too much, but the typical person I fly with who can afford to fly these days probably falls on the other side of the spectrum.

While I do teach my students how to use the autopilot and the glass, it often strikes me what a shame it is that they're paying so much money to spend so much time dealing with a computer rather than enjoying the view for which they're paying so dearly.


Kumar said...

John and IFR Pilot in Cleveland,


The above link references two supported external GPS receivers on the iPad that can be used on a WiFi only device.