For all the enormous advances across a range of technologies that changed the face of aircraft cockpits beyond all recognition since the early days of flying, there remains one aspect of the modern flight deck that would be familiar to aviators of old – its reliance on paper.

Today’s pilots still lug around 15kg of printed reference material – the operating manuals, charts, logbooks, airport information and safety checklists needed for the flight – an apparent anachronism in an electronic age. However, it seems that may be about to change.

“The paperless cockpit concept has been growing for a number of years and is now more popular than ever,” says Ross Neher, general manager and vice president of FlightPrep, the company behind iChart – one of a range of innovative solutions designed to help turn the electronic flight bag (EFB) idea into a reality. 

“It is potentially a high-growth market, and there are a number of players in the game, including Skypaq, Lufthansa Systems and Boeing’s Jeppesen unit, who announced the roll-out of the new,  ground-breaking Mobile FliteDeck app in June, following on from the introduction of their Mobile TC terminal chart application during the EAA AirVenture show in Oshkosh last year” Neher explained.

“Thanks to a lower cost of equipage with the release of the Apple iPad and comparable Windows-based slate PCs, many pilots are adopting paperless technology.”

Bye bye, flight bag

“There remains one aspect of the modern flight deck that would be familiar to aviators of old – its reliance on paper.”

Alaska Airlines’ current initiative provides a good example of some of the benefits that can be gained from doing so, and like much of the wider apps revolution, it was the arrival of Apple’s iPad that really made it happen.

According to Gary Beck, the airline’s vice president of flight operations, they had been exploring the EFB concept for a number of years, but only found a device that offered a perfect fit with their needs when the iPad hit the market.

After a successful trial evaluation which ran from winter 2010 to the following spring, the scheme has been rolled out to all of the company’s pilots.

The iPads use the GoodReader app, loaded with 41 flights, systems and performance manuals, reference cards and associated materials in PDF format, providing faster and easier information access and allowing ‘one-touch’ updates to make the manual page replacement a thing of the past.

“It is working extremely well,” reports Marianne Lindsey of Alaska Airlines media relations. “The iPads are a cost effective technology that improves information management for the pilots, reduces paper, and reduces weight that the pilots need to carry by about 25 lbs.”

Currently, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) classifies the iPad as a class 1 EFB device – which means it must be switched off during takeoff and landing – but Alaska hopes it will be approved for all phases of  flight within the year, a move which would bring even further benefits.

“We are very excited about the possibilities. Replacing the paper manuals is part one of a two-part initiative that Alaska Airlines is exploring that will include replacement of paper aeronautical navigation charts with electronic versions on the iPad, eliminating the need for every pilot to carry their own copy,” Ms Lindsey says.

According to her, in addition to enhancing flight safety and improving efficiency, these two initiatives – dubbed ‘bye, bye, flight bag’ – will also help the airline to avoid the need for nearly two-and-a-half million pieces of paper.

The regulators and the need for safety

Other operators have embraced the paperless approach – including American Airlines and perhaps most recently, the French charter and cargo airline Europe Airpost – and Apple products are not the only ones found in the cockpit. Finnair, for instance, which began using EFB laptops in 2001 and achieved a paperless environment for its Airbus 320, 330 and 340 and Embraer 170 / 190 fleets in 2008, makes use of Hewlett-Packard hardware, and a mix of in-house, EAG, Skypaq and Windows-based commercial software. 

The one critical aspect that is the same across the board, however, is the obvious need to satisfy safety regulators.

“The operator must demonstrate the reliability of any EFB, including the iPad,” explains an FAA spokesman. “Each air carrier decides what information they want to carry in an electronic flight bag, regardless of the particular EFB make or model.

“The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) classifies the iPad as a class 1 EFB device.”

“Once a carrier successfully goes through the evaluation period and gets authorization from the FAA inspector overseeing their operations, whatever documents – for example, navigation charts –  are loaded onto and accessible from the EFB and no longer have to be carried in paper.”

Toni Kivinen, avionics development manager for Finnair flight operations, believes having the regulatory authorities involved from the start is crucial, since “the most challenging part is to prove that all the regulations are fulfilled and to get acceptance to new technologies and processes.”

He says that, historically, the relative lack of aviation-related software did lead to some problems, “but this is improving a lot nowadays, as new software providers are emerging more and more.” 

Evolving technology

The technology is undoubtedly developing quickly. Back in 2003, the Connecticut-based company, Paperless Cockpit, caused a stir with its new ‘low-end’ EFB device, based on an 800 MHz Pentium III processor, with a 20GB hard drive, 56k V.90 modem, ethernet card and external CD-ROM. 

Eight years on, the iPad in today’s cockpit stands as a perfect example of Moore’s law on the accelerating rate of computer evolution – so what does the future hold for the paperless cockpit? 

“In five years time the hardware and software that runs on it will continue to evolve to the advantage of our customers and all those who fly” Neher believes.

“These steps forward in technology will enable us to offer data that pilots need in a quickly and easily recognisable format so they can concentrate on aircraft operation and safety. ADS-B, iPad 7s – or whatever the technology may be – and seamless transitions between products will enable pilots to have their data at their fingertips anywhere, and at anytime.”

“Steps forward in technology will enable us to offer data that pilots need in a quickly and easily recognisable format.”

It is a view largely echoed by Kivinen. “Everything will be integrated into the aircraft themselves – meaning, they will have their own integrated web servers, firewalls and means to send and receive large amounts of data to ground.

“All the manuals and software for EFBs, passenger entertainment and even the embedded software for aircraft systems can be managed through this integrated IT”.

Ultimately, it seems, many of the currently accepted norms of the wider data-driven world will finally make their way on-board.

“Business is talking very widely about ‘e-operations’ and ‘connected aircraft’ concepts,” he says.

“These are every-day life for most of us, but in aviation they are quite new areas.”