Pilots love their iPads, but this pilot’s experience with one app makes us wonder if there’s a bigger potential fall in going paperless than most of us believe.
There is a lot of talk about the paperless cockpit these days, and some airlines have even embraced the iPad as a replacement for a bag full of charts. I have been committed to this for several years, and the best-integrated, most reliable package I found before Jepp FD was from Anywhere Map, who make a bulletproof product, and recently announced a new, cross-platform product for iPad and Android.
The iPad with Jeppesen-FD is compelling: a well-integrated design and complete package, though it lacks a lot of the ForeFlight features (like ADS-B weather). But the realities of a recent “paperless” trip made me wonder if all this stuff is really ready for prime time. All I can say is that it’s a good thing I brought the paper. Don’t leave without it.
I don’t mean to pick on Jeppesen here. (Well, maybe a little.) But I offer this as a cautionary tale of what could happen with any digital solution if all the details aren’t quite worked out, either with the entire software package or some new feature that goes into effect just before your flight.
Did You Try Rebooting?
My first problem has been a recurring one, where sometimes you call up the plates and get none for the destination airport (or just two or three random ones). This has been on going for a while, and Jeppesen technical support gave me the work-around: Exit Jepp FD, double press the apps button, press and hold the FD, wait for a “wiggle,” shut down FD and any other open apps, and then restart FD. This usually works.
This sounds easy, but believe me, it’s a lot less simple to do as a single pilot in IMC. After a three-hour leg, I arrived at an unfamiliar airport and got only two plates: an airport diagram and a departure. So I did the dance in turbulence and ended up with a message that said, “Warning, this will erase the application and erase all its data. Proceed?” One more turbulence-induced finger jab and that would have been it. I never did get my approach plate, but fortunately I had a paper copy.
I brought my complaints to the Jeppesen booth at Sun n’ Fun and was referred to a young woman on a stool whom I was told was a member of the development team. I told her I had concerns with the app hanging up, and shorting the charts list: She asked what I did to make that happen. She handed me her iPad and it took about five seconds to lock it up completely. I handed it back. She did the dance, while I explained there is not always time to do that in IMC. She didn’t seem to understand what I meant.
It became clear that I was using the one-back software version, so she suggeted I update and handed me her iPad. It took 10 seconds to lock that one up. I even got the warning about erasing all data. She was pretty quick grabbing the iPad back, but failed to fix it. She didn’t offer me her contact information, so I gave her my Jepp customer number, which I’ve needed several times since going “paperless.”
Bad Data at the Source
On a subsequent flight over to the Bahamas, I had a little trouble with the iPad, but it was VFR and I had paper. I had an internet connection, so I powered up FD to see if it worked this time. It said it wanted chart updates, so I let it do that. I also upgraded the software from the App Store. After that, the rubber band feature worked and charts seemed to come up fine. The next day, I was ready to leave and thought I’d punch in my first leg, call up the charts and make sure it still worked. Nope. It gave me a message about “corrupt data,” so I called the support line. While on hold, I heard a recorded message of how to fix your FD if you got this exact corrupt-data message. I guess I wasn’t alone. I wrote down the instructions then executed the series of steps. All this took an hour.
The steps executed as expected, but I ended up with a semi-frozen screen of about seven miles by 10 miles somewhere in the middle of the U.S. Pinching in and out worked OK, but the display immediately reverted to the same 7- by 10-mile area. I thought it was a message from above, or maybe a map of Area 51. To fix it, I tried the whole “delete and reload” (takes a while, believe me) routine. No luck.
Back on the phone with tech support, he told me I needed to go to my iTunes account. I reminded him that I was 1500 miles from home and my Mac, which would log into iTunes. He decided I needed help, put me back on hold, and then a cheery voice came on saying, “Good morning, Apple Support.” Ms. Cheery Voice and I parted friends, but she couldn’t transfer me back and is still wondering what a “Jepp” is.
My third call netted me someone who finally explained that there was a corrupted file on the charts-server at the time I uploaded. The only way to resolve it was to delete the app and all the data, re-load the app and the data, giving my serial number. I had already done that twice, but apparently the process will fail if you mistake the first digit in your serial number as a “1” instead of an “I.”
In explaining what had gone wrong with the data, he explained that the iPad has capacity for dual databases. The old chart data is used until the new data comes into effect, then the iPad simply switches over. This happens at 09:00 Zulu on the Thursday change date, so it could be right there while you are in flight. Users can’t control this, switch back, or resolve it—so you’re suddenly flying with an untested data set.
We eventually got it uploaded … only to leave me stuck with my seven-mile by 10-mile map that would not zoom, pinch in or out. But instead of Area 51, I had a same-sized patch of ocean. So far I had two hours of cell bills at roaming rates.
He was at a loss to explain the stuck map, but then asked me if I had tried twisting the iPad to flip the image. I hadn’t because I have it locked so it doesn’t flip when I push on brakes or rudder. I unlocked it, flipped the image and the patch disappeared in favor of a controllable screen. Argggh.
I have been a software developer since 1967. (Yes, there were digital computers back then.) To this day, I write code in 11 different languages. It seems clear to me that if you need a “refresh” signal from the operating system to un-freeze a screen (the flip dance) then something is wrong with the code.
Games are one thing and coders can afford to be sloppy. But flight crews can’t afford to rely on undisciplined code. My talks with all these different support people makes me confident that meeting the release cycles is far more important to Jepp than the integrity of what they are releasing. This was not an assumption on my part; in various ways they used precisely those words. Quoting one of them, “You don’t understand. The product cycle parameters must be met.”
I understand that this type of equipment is essentially unregulated for the GA cockpit. I’m sure there are plenty of Jepp FD users that have had flawless experiences so far. I’m sure there are users of other aviation iPad apps that have had their own nightmares as well.
I offer this story more to remind us all how easily we can become dependent on technology in the cockpit but that your iPad is not under tight quality control like your panel-mount GPS. It also seems to me that some companies—perhaps bigger companies owned by mega companies, for instance—might not be nearly as in touch with the real-world needs of GA pilots as some of the small app makers who are pilots themselves.
As for Jepp FD, I’m still using it because it’s a great tool when it works. But is simply not as reliable as it needs to be. I’m still bringing paper until I’m confident they have their act together.
Wiggling out of responsibility?
I sent this article to Jeppesen for feedback before submitting it to IFR. I asked specifically for feedback from someone who could speak on behalf of the company with regard to commitments. Eventually, I got a call from Ryan (no last name or position). l spoke to him for over an hour.
He said in no uncertain terms that it was my fault because I didn’t quit other running apps (the wiggle dance) before departure. That is, I didn’t quit all other running programs on the iPad before I launched JeppFD to use in flight. Furthermore, he said I was not in compliance with the FARs (and quoted the section) because I had not confirmed that I had the plates for my destination before I left.
My reply was that I was completely in compliance for several reasons. I fly by Canadian regulations. I had all the plates on board because I print them on paper. I further had a backup set in my laptop, which was on board and accessible. The issue at hand was why the iPad was unreliable, not what I had on board.
He said he could guarantee that if they were available after the wiggle dance, I would have them on approach. He repeated his allegation that without that step I was flying illegally. He actually repeated it 21 times. Yes, maybe I’m obsessive, but I counted them.
So, gentle reader, another tip for the wise: Read all the fine print about what the company expects you to do with your iPad when you use their product. If you have a problem—or worse, a violation or accident—the finger could be pointed back at you for failure to wiggle. —B.K.
Bob Keeping has two aircraft in his video production business, most of the time flying IFR in an Aerostar. He’s still not quite paperless.
The paperless movement is in full swing, and while it is an amazing transformation, it does not mean that the pilot can let go of the responsibility of ensuring they have the appropriate navigational data for a flight. Just like with paper charts, the pilot is responsible for ensuring they have the latest application and aeronautical information. The time for checking this is not when flying, especially if redundant systems are not available.
Because the iPad holds the app and state of the app in memory, it is a good idea to force-quit and then launch the app after a data update, if there are any issues with the display of charts or charts associated with an airport. Please note that this process does not delete any information from the device. There is no need to force-quit the application and remove Jeppesen Mobile FliteDeck from memory prior to executing a flight, and there is certainly no regulation that would require a user to force-quit the app prior to a flight and remove all apps from memory—but, again, a pilot should always ensure they have the proper navigational information prior to executing their flight.
In the April timeframe, there was an issue with one of our en route databases.
The issue was quickly resolved, but many downloads had already occurred. Jeppesen’s quality teams have put procedures in place to prevent this from occurring again. We have extremely thorough quality controls on many different levels and we will hold software releases if they are not stable. I run this program and “product cycle parameters” are of no consideration when it comes to the quality of the solution we put in the market.
Jeppesen Mobile FliteDeck has been well received in the global aviation community and we proactively share input from general aviation (Part 91), air carriers (Part 135 and 121) and military operators. Resulting from this effort, we have been able to work with civil aviation authorities and operators around the world to facilitate, with great success, the acceptance of electronic solutions in place of paper for all market segments. Our ongoing objective is to provide the highest quality software and information to our customers to increase situational awareness and improve the flight experience for all customers across the aviation industry.
—Jeff Buhl, senior manager, Enterprise Solutions