The paperless cockpit is here

The move to electronic manuals means it's time to retire my old black flight bag. Bring on the iPad

By Patrick Smith
Published September 2, 2011 1:01AM (EDT)

Last week I mourned the passing of two classic American airport buildings -- the old tower at LaGuardia, and IM Pei's Terminal 6 at JFK International. Well, it happens we need to pay our respects to another aviation icon as well.

[cue dirge]

I'm talking about Patrick Smith's leather flight case, pictured above. After more than 20 years of service this festively adorned briefcase has been retired.

It was the only flight bag I ever owned. (The handle, just out of view, has been repaired with hockey tape.) It traveled with me, secure in its cockpit cubbyhole, on assignments to five continents and who knows how many countries. The stickers have changed many times (the Thailand decal is the oldest, dating from 1993), but the rest of it, battered and scraped and patched, is unchanged.

I purchased it in August 1990, at a pilot supply shop in a hangar at the airport in Bangor, Maine. BGR was headquarters for the first airline I ever worked at -- something called Northeast Express Regional Airlines. We were one of the old "Airlink" affiliates that flew on behalf of Northwest.

I'd be bringing in a cool $850 a month, and clearly it was time to splurge. I think I paid $60 for the bag. It was one of the cheaper models with no interior padding or pockets. Not even a pen holder. It was a black leather box, basically. Up to that point I'd been using an old brown attache case that I'd found in somebody's garbage on Beacon Hill.

The pilot shop was run by a man named Harvey Hillson, or "Harvey the Uniform Man." Harvey's family sold apparel in the Bangor area for generations, and he supplied us with our trousers, blazers, hats and accessories.

My tenure as a young copilot at Northeast Express is chronicled in this memoir, which also includes the following description of Harvey:

Tall, gangly and bald, he was a fast-talking and distrustful sort who wore thick round glasses and chewed a long, unlit cigar. As he explained proper laundering techniques and recommended the use of vinegar to clean soot from our epaulets, his cigar rolled and bobbed like a counterweight, always seeming to perfectly balance the tilt of his head.

"Keep your hats on," Harvey warned us, his eyes bugging out. "Some of you guys look so young, you'll scare the passengers!"

He smiled, and his teeth were the color of root beer.

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My bag will not be replaced. It doesn't need to be replaced. Indeed, the black flight case, for so long a staple of air crew regalia, is a vanishing breed. Expect to see fewer and fewer of them as the various charts, maps and manuals contained therein are replaced by so-called ship sets, in which these items are stowed on board as part of the ship's library.

Or, in some cases, they're being eliminated entirely and converted into electronic form.

The "paperless cockpit" it's called, and already it's here. JetBlue's pilots have been relying on laptops for several years, while United Airlines just announced that its crews will be moving to an iPad-based platform. Delta and several other airlines are researching a similar move. Depending on the carrier's needs and preferences, an iPad or other tablet device can be issued to each pilot, or a pair of them can be mounted and wired into the cockpit itself.

The cockpit will never be entirely paperless -- flight plans, weather packets and whatnot are best served the old-fashioned way -- but the more cumbersome hard-copy material, now digitized, will be more quickly and easily accessible.

And quickly and easily revised. The move to electronic manuals is the best idea I've heard in years, if for no other reason than it frees the average pilot from the savagery and tedium of having to update and revise his books. Anybody who flies for a living is -- or was -- familiar with this numbing, biweekly rite of uncompensated labor. In that bag of mine I was lugging around four separate binders of approach, arrival and departure charts covering hundreds of airports around the world; five pounds of en route maps; plus three different company and aircraft manuals. Together these volumes were subject to hundreds of pages of revisions every month. The tiniest addendum, the slightest change to a routing or a tweaked procedure, and bang, 18 pages needed to be swapped out. (Did you know there are 57 pages of arrival and departure profiles just for Madrid, Spain?)

Installing a particularly fat set of revisions could take two hours or more. Common side effects might include dizziness, repetitive motion injuries and suicide.

Part of the problem here is that airlines and regulators have insisted on supersaturating crews with data and information. They excel at taking a modicum of valuable and useful information into literally thousands of pages of esoteric fluffery -- a staggeringly dense library of required on-board material.

But now, at least, we don't need to lug it around with us, hauling those 30-pound kits through X-ray machines and up and down flights of stairs. And we can find what we need through the ease of an electronic touchpad.

United says the move to iPads will save 16 million sheets of paper annually. I can believe it. It will also save huge amounts of time, fuel and visits to the chiropractor.

And yes, it'll be cheaper. Pilots might be thrilled, but airlines aren't doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. Ultimately it's driven by cost.

You were wondering, meanwhile ...

Now that pilots can use their iPads in the cockpit, shouldn't passengers be allowed to use them in the cabin, whenever they want to? And doesn't this prove that the rules about electronic devices aren't really necessary?

Not quite. The main reason tablets and laptops are banned during takeoff and landing isn't because of concerns over interference, but because they might hinder an evacuation, and are potentially dangerous projectiles in the event of an impact or rapid deceleration. I suspect you don't want a Kindle or MacBook knocking you in the head at 180 miles per hour. The devices in the cockpit will need to be stowed or secured as well.

The other big question is about the prospect of these gadgets failing. What happens if the first officer spills a Coke Zero all over his new iPad, or drops it on the floor?

Well, nothing worth worrying about. These are reference materials, not do-or-die sets of instructions. Be wary of the way some in the media have been covering this. Responding to the United Airlines announcement, one headline spoke of pilots "navigating through their iPads." At best that's a caricature.

There always will be at least two devices on board. The important information is already in the plane's FMS database, and anything truly critical will also remain in hard copy. If need be, thanks to some bizarre worst-case scenario, there are other ways of getting this stuff to the pilots -- by radio, ACARS datalink, etc.

Fear not any iPad-related catastrophe.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his website and look for answers in a future column.

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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