Blind faith

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© Air France

It’s the stuff of nightmares. At a critical moment during flight you turn to your electronic flight bag (EFB) needing information right then and there. Staring back at you is an uncooperative screen, telling you it’s too hot, or has insufficient power to continue. Suddenly you’re left scrabbling for that vital information-in ink rather than pixels-but by then, is it too late?

Do you even have a plan B?

Tablets and iPads have become commonplace in cockpits at all levels of aviation, with their usability and affordability making them an attractive replacement for the cumbersome, weighty flight bag. From private to commercial operators, many are making the switch, but like anything new, it has given rise to fresh safety issues, some of which are only just coming to light. With the growing rate of EFB use comes an increasing number of pilots who are willing to depend not only on their iPad functioning flawlessly, but also on second-rate navigation software from unapproved vendors.

With advances in technology and the huge growth in online app stores, users now face an overwhelming choice of software products. At last count, on the highly regulated Apple iTunes Store, searching for ‘aviation’/’navigation’ applications returned over 170 results, with over 200 results on the Android equivalent, Google Play store. However, despite the wide range of tempting and often free choices available to pilots, only six vendors have been approved by CASA to provide the data required by the regs, such as the latest versions of the maps and navigational charts for the sector being flown.

Currently, all AOC holders are required to have a backup flight bag, whether it takes the form of hard copy charts, maps, documents or another EFB. However, this does not apply to individual operators, who are left to decide whether or not to carry a contingency. The growing prevalence of unapproved apps, along with a lack of backup for EFBs has industry professionals worried about pilots becoming over-reliant on a single, potentially unreliable device.

An Air Safety Group report published earlier this year, The Electronic Flight Bag Friend or Foe?, argues that EFBs can become dangerous when pilots overly rely on the technology, and should be treated with ‘a healthy level of circumspection’, even by the most experienced pilot. The report also asserts that software products such as those available on the iTunes and Google Play stores are ‘prone to errors that can have sinister repercussions’ and the blind faith being placed in them by pilots could prove to be fatal.

Furthermore, the report indicates the expansion of ‘cheap’ consumer goods across the industry, because of concerns about the cost of the traditional flight bag, could be problematic. Despite having undergone relevant testing, these devices are developed, manufactured and sold with the mass market in mind, not the challenging environment of avionics. Unsurprisingly, there have been reports of faulty tablet devices malfunctioning.

One incident in the US alerted the FAA to the risk of iPads overheating mid-flight. During a VFR trip and ‘approximately two hours into the flight, the iPad displayed a notice indicating it had overheated, and shut down within about five seconds’. The pilot reverted to his paper charts and after a few minutes spent finding the correct position continued his flight. Despite the relatively seamless transition from pixel to print, the pilot admitted, ‘had this happened during a complicated instrument approach, especially without paper charts being available, safety could have been impacted’.

The notion of a lithium-powered device overheating in a small cockpit is enough to ring alarm bells for anyone involved in aviation. Despite the iPad only having a 42.5 watt hour rating, less than half the 100wh rating allowed for carry-on items; at 10,500ft and operating under reduced air density, research has shown that the face of an Apple iPad ‘acts thermally like a black surface, so considerable heat can be absorbed from direct sunlight’.

Despite being a professional electrical engineer, the pilot in America ‘did not anticipate’ the device overheating, particularly as the temperature in the cockpit was ‘quite comfortable’.

Outside the world of aviation there have been countless consumer news stories of electronic devices failing and causing serious injury, like this one, where a man was electrocuted when he unplugged his daughter’s charging iPad. Furthermore, warranty service Square Trade analysed over 50,000 iPads covered by its warranties and found that customers reported the iPad 2 had a total failure rate of 10.1 per cent, with 9.8 per cent of iPad 2s breaking in the first 12 months of use.

The mention of electric shock and lithium battery fire may seem alarmist. However, the potential for both is real, as is the possibility that, given the right circumstances, an EFB in the form of an iPad, regardless of rigorous testing, is just like any other mainstream electrical product and can fail without notice.

Despite this, a growing number of pilots are willing to depend entirely upon these mass-porduced consumer goods for survival in the air. While there is yet to be a major incident to snap them out of this naivety, how long before the holes in the Swiss cheese align and the blind faith being placed in these devices is revealed as folly? As the Air Safety Group report affirms, ‘time after time, people are lured into a sense of security around computers that is dramatically shattered by some disaster’.

Principal engineer for avionics at CASA, Charles Lenarcic, stresses that pilots need to safeguard against the many safety concerns surrounding low-end EFBs. ‘The single most dangerous thing about (the iPad) is that it can become a projectile’, he says. In turbulent conditions, portable EFBs need to be attached to an engineered mount, approved and installed in accordance with CASR 21M, to safeguard against the risk of injury and EFB damage. CAO 20.16.3 is the legislation that deals with the stowage of objects in an aircraft and is applicable to all Australian-registered aircraft.

Lenarcic, who was part of the ICAO electronic flight bag working group, welcomes the EFB’s ability to make the job of aviators easier. However he is weary of pilots, particularly of the VFR variety, who remain ignorant of the iPad’s potential shortcomings. ‘It is a commercial off-the-shelf product not built to any accuracy or reliability standard that we in the industry would recognise. It is not an aviation product’, he says.

Despite this, Lenarcic estimates ‘around 90 per cent’ of VFR pilots fail to carry a backup. ‘Pilots have to ask themselves; “In the event of a failure, what is my backup?”‘ he says. ‘If you’re in IMC and your iPad fails, and you have no maps, no charts, no frequency to call for help, what are you going to do? Hope that the iPad comes back? Especially in turbulence-if the device has hit the ceiling and smashed-you’ve got nothing.’

Lenarcic emphasises that responsibility falls on the pilot to have ‘readily accessible’ maps and charts from approved vendors. ‘It is up to you’, he says. ‘If you believe your iPad is never going to break down; you’re never going to drop it and break the screen; it’s never going to get a flat battery; it’s never going to fail; then don’t carry anything else. But if you are on the ramp and a CASA inspector says “Show me your maps” and you have a flat battery, you are in breach of Civil Aviation Regulation 233(1)(h).’ EFBs are still relatively new in aviation but have rapidly shot to prominence because of their usefulness and ability to help cut costs. Despite this innovation, tried-and-tested safety measures remain. Having a contingency, a plan B, will not completely avoid the possibility of multiple failures and the holes in the Swiss cheese aligning, but it will add another layer of defence and help reduce the overall risk.

Revised CAAP 233-1(0): Electronic Flight Bags October 2013

7.2 Screen size

7.2.1 The screen size and resolution will need to demonstrate the ability to display information in a manner comparable to the paper aeronautical charts and data it is intended to replace. The recommended minimum size of the screen is 200mm measured diagonally across the active viewing area. If the intent of the installation is to display charts and maps, the device should be suitably sized to display the image without excessive scrolling.

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Note: Some manufacturers’ screen sizes may vary marginally from this minimum but may still be acceptable.

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