Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Your User Fees

Just found this over at Get the Flick. It's a bit long, but worth the time. Just don't check your blood pressure when you're done.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

It's a Wonderful Life

As a sort of Chanukah/Christmas/Kwanza/Festivus/Winter Solstice present to my readers, here are some photos from a few recent flights that I hope you'll enjoy.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Elephant in the Room

The repercussions from FlightPrep's enforcement of it's patent on flight planning technology continue. SkyVector has reached a licensing agreement which prevents them from discussing the specifics. RunwayFinder has closed down after a lawsuit was filed against them, agreement could not be reached, and as of this writing the lawsuit has not been withdrawn. NACOMatic, apparently out of fear that they might soon be in the crosshairs, has shutdown. AOPA and Jeppesen have announced that the AOPA flight planner does not infringe on the patent, but have not provided details. Numerous other businesses may be affected, so the pilot community is still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

We've all become familiar with verisimilitude, truthiness, and bafflegab, but it's important for pilots to make informed choices about the companies they choose to support with their patronage. My intent today is to draw attention to the some under-reported details of this situation that are publicly known in an otherwise opaque situation.

Dave Parsons has reported that the FlightPrep lawsuit claimed over $3 million in damages and the way those damages were calculated is creative to say the least: The figure appears to be based on $149, the cost of FlightPrep's product, multiplied by the total number of monthly visits to RunwayFinder's web site. These calculations do not seem to attempt to take into account that much of RunwayFinder's web site traffic was repeat visits from the same people. The advantage of a simplistic calculation like this is that it results in a large dollar figure for damages, which is certainly disconcerting to the person being sued. The idea that there are 20,000 or more people per month who, where it not for RunwayFinder, would have bought FlightPrep's products seems hyperbolic, at best.

Given the lack of transparency surrounding SkyVector's licensing arrangement with FlightPrep, it's hard to know exactly what's going on. Despite FlightPrep's claim of goodwill and not wanting to put others out of business, that's exactly what appears to be happening. Given the lack of transparency, it's difficult to know what else is going on. Who has entered into a licensing agreement with FlightPrep? No one but FlightPrep and their licensees know all the details, but the legal fees must be driving up everyone's cost of doing business. And it seems reasonable to assume that will be passed on to consumers.

Trying to reconcile the lawsuit and the damage claims with FlightPrep's recent statements about how they want to deal with the aviation community is hard work. It appears FlightPrep will fiercely defend its patent and keep licensing details cloaked under non-disclosure agreements. The short term result is that pilots have a shrinking number of choices for preflight planning and patent rights notwithstanding, that's just sad.

Every day, each of us has the opportunity to make a choice about the businesses we want to patronize. For some the decision is based on the quality of the product or service being offered and the value being offered, but it can also be based on how that business behaves in the community. While FlightPrep may be legally entitled to do what they are doing, I find I can no longer support them and have no plans to purchase any of their products. My hope is that FlightPrep will abandon their combative approach to doing business and that they will eventually be seen in a better light. Each of us needs to weigh the facts that are known, come to our own decision, and make our own choices. What will your decision be?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Prometheus and the Cowboys

The 19th century author Horatio Alger, Jr. wrote numerous books containing what came to be known as rags-to-riches stories and though few of Alger's characters became extremely wealthy, the myth worked its way into the American collective unconscious. Who wouldn't want to believe the optimistic message that with hard work, the right ideas, and good timing any one of us could accumulate wealth? The promise or pursuit of wealth is commonly used to brush aside concerns about centralization of power, social responsibility, even morality.

The recent announcement that FlightPrep filed a patent infringement lawsuit against the popular website RunwayFinder has sent shock waves through the aviation community. One doesn't have to be an intellectual property attorney to understand this case, but it would probably help. At the center of the controversy is a patent granted to FlightPrep that appears to credit them (I'm a layperson paraphrasing here) with the invention of software depicting a navigational course on a chart for the purposes of flight planning where much of the source data (charts, obstructions, weather) are stored on a host computer and displayed on a less powerful computer.

It appears that FlightPrep's intention is to license their invention and those who may already be using their patented concept in their products will presumably need to pony up. I say "presumably" because while it appears FlightPrep and RunwayFinder are working to reach an agreement, as of this writing that agreement is pending.

Those old enough to remember the late 1980's may remember the Grand GIF Debacle. A developer named Terry Welch created a high-performance variation of the LZ78 lossless data-compression algorithm called LZW. A patent was granted for LZW which eventually came to be held by Unisys. Compuserve, one of the early pioneers of on-line services, was hampered by limited network bandwidth (weren't we all?) at a time when 56 kbit/second modems were the coolest thing since punched cards. The use of the LZW for compressing graphic image files (GIFs) became widespread and in the early 1990s, Unisys and Compuserve began licensing negotiations and reached an agreement.

Then Unisys dropped a bombshell: They expected all on-line services and users of the now widespread LZW GIF format to pay licensing fees. Since the use of GIF images had become popular, this action after the fact was widely condemned. Though Unisys tried to ease the financial burden of licensing, the damage to their reputation had been done: They were seen by many as trying to stifle innovation and hindering the development of the fledgling internet. Eventually the patent expired, things got back to normal, and the internet continues to develop.

A few years before this debacle, I was employed at a now-defunct mainframe computer manufacturer and together with a co-worker, developed a method for exchanging data between an operating system and the underlying propriety hardware for a data communications interface. Someone, I think it was our manager, suggested that we try to patent this scheme. We rolled our eyes as if to say "Hey, this is just software written to solve a design problem." The idea that we were the first people to think of, let alone implement such a scheme seemed unlikely, but more importantly patents had nothing to do with what was interesting to most of us programmers. What floated our boats was solving problems, creating new designs, innovating, and moving on to the next project. Some of us may have even felt ourselves to be like the cowboys of yore, hard-working, self-reliant folk who savored the freedom to roam a digital frontier.

I'm not an expert on patents or intellectual property, but as someone with significant programming experience the fact that a patent was granted to FlightPrep seems fantastic to me. Sailors have been laying plotters on charts and drawing course lines for centuries. Pilots have been doing the same for decades. The idea that this process would ultimately be done by a computer or a network of computers is a obvious extension of a manual activity already in practice. The concept of some of the input data being accessed from different computers, to my mind, is not at all novel: Data stored on different computers is what the internet is all about. It appears that the patent attorneys and the US Patent Office came to a different conclusion. Like it or not, we live in a world where corporations try to patent an individual's DNA or apply to trademark the word "face."

So the question remains: Will a few individuals try to assert control of something so basic and widespread, presumably for their own financial gain, or will they learn from history and see the folly of such a course of action? Without knowing the exact intentions of FlightPrep, it's hard to say how their patent claim and desire to license their "technology" will affect GA and flight planning software services. FlightPrep claims they don't want to stifle innovation or increase costs, but the fact remains they filed a lawsuit against Runway Finder. GA pilots have come to expect a variety of flight planning options and the last thing we need is a riches-to-rags story.

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.