A lot of people are clamoring for ways to grow the pilot population and one area that has been ignored is the needless complexity involved in flying. Do we really need so many different classes of controlled airspace and a confusing array of cloud clearance and visibility for those classes? Why is the Airport/Facility Directory information presented in such a bone-headed manner? VFR charts that basically use two colors (magenta and cyan) to depict all of the different varieties of airspace? So it's no wonder that as prospective student pilots learn more, they discover learning aviation is like death by a thousand tiny cuts. Then I had a recent email exchange with Ron about a practical test question and he suggested in passing that I review Jeppesen's new iPad app for visual flight rule (VFR) flyers, a kind of simplified electronic flight bag app for non-instrument rated pilots. "But I don't have the financial resources to test all these apps" was my response. That's when Ron pointed out the folks at Jepp are offering a 30-day free trial for their Mobile FlightDeck VFR. After some investigating, I was intrigued: A simpler Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) for pilots who just fly under VFR could be a step in the right direction.
Given the competitive pressure being applied by the folks at ForeFlight, Jeppesen's marketing department wisely chose to offer a free 30-day trial. I decided to download Jepp's latest offering and give it a try, but I had to retrieve my Jepp on-line account password that I hadn't used in ages. Then it was time to I roll up my sleeves and begin the honest reviewing and critiquing process that (I hope) my readers appreciate. This installment covers my experience downloading, installing and configuring the app, and doing some flight planning. I'll cover using Mobile FlightDeck VFR in flight in a subsequent post.
Get the App
To start the 30-day free trail of Mobile FlightDeck VFR, launch the browser of your choice on your iPad and go to this link. If you already have a Jeppesen account, just login. Otherwise you'll need to create an account. Follow the prompts and you should receive an email saying your 30-day free trial has been activated. The confirmation email will also contain a link that, when used on your iPad, will take you directly to the Mobile FlightDeck VFR app in AppStore. Tap on FREE and install as you would any other app.
Note: I'm running iOS 7 on a 32Mb iPad Mini, which Jepp says is supported.
Everything was going just fine as I launched the app on my iPad and logged in. The user interface is clean and simple with just a few tabs at the bottom. A breath of fresh air!
It became obvious that downloading an area of coverage would need to be one of the first tasks, so I tapped on DOWNLOADS and then selected United States. The download started and after 3 minutes with only 15% had transferred, I decided my time would be better spent walking my dogs whilst the bits flowed from Jeppesen's server to my iPad.
I returned about an hour later to find the app had crashed back to the iOS home screen. I re-launched the app and saw it was extracting the downloaded data. Then it crashed again. After retrying a few times and seeing the same behavior, I called Jepp tech support.
Within a few minutes, I was connected to a helpful tech who made some suggestions. The first was to close all open apps, shutdown the iPad, and restart. Next he suggested I to go to the iOS Settings, find the Mobile FlightDeck settings, and de-authorize the app. When I relaunched, the app asked me to log in again, and the download resumed, much faster this time. Seems that the previously downloaded, but non-extracted data had been cached.
To prevent problems when installing, my suggestions (based on some experience and a bit of former software engineer intuition/superstition) are:
- Quit all open apps on your iPad
- Do a hard reset of your iPad (hold the button on the upper right edge)
- Restart your iPad
- Launch the Mobile FlightDeck VFR app
- Start the download for your desired coverage
- DO NOT switch to another app until the download completes
Set-up Your Aircraft
Tap on SETTINGS to enter your personal information, set-up aircraft profiles, and set your preferred units for flight planning. The Pilot Profile information isn't really appropriate for US pilots because it uses the terms "Licenses and Ratings." This may seem nit-picky and I've mentioned it before, but in the US there is no such thing as a pilot's "license." PIC privileges in the US come from a combination of a pilot certificate (which never expires), a medical certificate (which does expire), a current flight review, and the necessary recency of experience. There is no one document that confers a "license" to fly in the US. Each "license" entry that you create also has a "type rating" field, which is most certainly not of interest to VFR fliers in the US. These issues may not matter to most folks, but failure to provide the correct terms based on one's locale belies a certain sloppiness on Jeppesen's part and it perpetuates the unfortunate and incorrect use of the term "license" in the US.
Within SETTINGS, tap on AIRCRAFT PROFILES to set up one or more aircraft for flight planning purposes. When you enter an aircraft manufacturer or model, there is no sanity checking - you can enter anything you want. It doesn't matter if you enter bad data because it won't be used for anything important, like filing a flight plan. That's because this app, unlike ForeFlight doesn't support retrieving a standard briefing or filing any flight plans.
Another odd thing is that the FUEL section requires you to enter numeric values, but only accepts whole numbers. I tried entering the 2.54 gallon taxi/takeoff fuel allowance for the DA42, but it appeared as 245 gallons. So I just rounded up to 3 gallons, but again I thought "Sloppy ..."
There is no place to enter climb performance (airspeed, climb rate, fuel consumption), cruise performance, or descent performance. ForeFlight has the same limitation. Will someone please create a stand-alone iPad flight planning app that accounts for fuel and time to climb/descend? This really is a good job for a computer.
Plan a Flight
From the app's HOME screen, tap on CREATE NEW FLIGHT to start the flight planning process. It seems odd that the aircraft to be used is not the first item in the planning list since that will affect everything else. It appears the DEPARTURE airport is set to the home base airport of the aircraft that you select, but if you change the aircraft to one that has a different home base the original departure persists. For my test, I tried planning a trip that I've done a couple of times recently - Hayward to Chester/Rogers Field. Try as I might, I couldn't drag-n-drop the course line on the map to add a waypoint, so I just manually added some waypoints.
Tap on the ? button on most any screen and you'll get a simplified help overlay.
Tap on the WX/NOTAM button to view details on your route. Does this constitute a complete briefing of all available information in accordance with 14 CFR 91.103 Preflight Action? I don't think so, but it is simple and useful.
Tap on the NAVLOG to display a simplified navigation log. Remember, this does not account for fuel and time-to-climb or descend. The altitudes that the app automatically populates into the navlog are odd. Not sure how these altitudes are chosen, given the minimum off-route altitudes (MORAs) displayed next to the default altitudes. You can enter whatever you want, but it won't change the estimated times en route. Compared to ForeFlight's altitude advisor, this app seems primitive.
Jeppesen's biggest market advantage is their data-driven charts, which are remarkable when compared to scanned Aeronav charts. Jepp's app provides increasingly greater chart detail the more you zoom in, which includes really usable runway layouts at airports. Data-driven charts also allow this app to keep lettering right side up when in a track-up mode and to represent airspace in a much simpler and clearer format than traditional VFR charts. This could potentially make aviation more accessible to more student pilots.
Tapping on an airport allows you to quickly access information about that airport, but Jepp's choice of top-level information is not good. Think about it: You decide to divert to an airport. To my mind, the most useful order of the airport information is probably:
- Field elevation
- Traffic pattern altitude
- Runway lengths and traffic pattern direction (left or right)
What does this app give you? The FAA and ICAO identification for the airport, the tower frequency (in this case, the incorrect tower frequency), the magnetic variation (just what a VFR pilots needs), the aircraft categories allowed, traffic pattern altitude, and tie down fees. It doesn't appear that anyone actually thought about what would be useful and that makes for a wasted opportunity to continue with the simple, elegant, and intuitive design. It shouldn't be that hard to re-think and re-tool how important airport information is presented and smoothing out this glaring design flaw should be a top priority for Jeppensen developers, I think.
Now, I think I'll go flying with Jepp Mobile FlightDeck VFR ...