Don't let EFBs own your cockpit

These PEDs were not meant to replace flightdeck equipment or to supersede good pilot judgement.

Types of EFB software applications categorized by the FAA

Garmin's AERA 796 EFB unit is an example of a good ergonomic design that may be clipped onto a cockpit fixture or held in hand for comfortable reading.

Type A software applications are those paper replacement applications primarily intended for use during flight planning, on the ground, or during noncritical phases of flight having a failure condition classification considered to be a minor hazard or less. These include, primarily, pdf versions of all operating and policy manuals, as well as logbooks that operators might normally be required to stow in paper form on an aircraft.

Type B software applications are those paper replacement applications that provide the aeronautical information required to be accessible for each flight at the pilot station and are primarily intended for use during flight planning and all phases of flight. These include miscellaneous non-required applications having a failure condition classification considered to be a minor hazard or less, eg, aircraft cabin and exterior surveillance video displays, and maintenance applications.

This is an interesting way to say it because takeoff and landing performance calculations as well as approach charts and weight and balance calculations are in this category. It might occur to most pilots that these are actually critical software applications that deal with matters that affect our ability to operate and arrive safely. Again, Type B software applications do not undergo the normal certification process of other avionics but require only the approval of the primary FAA inspector of the operator.

Type C software applications that are approved and certified by the FAA. These are "non-EFB" software applications found in avionics and include intended functions for communications, navigation, and surveillance that require FAA design, production, and installation approval. Type C applications are approved software for surface and airborne functions with a failure condition classification considered to be a major hazard or higher.

A closer look at EFBs

By now, most of us have been using EFBs for a number of years, and have seen improvements and a host of new functions – many of them quite useful. So I am not arguing for the re-introduction of paper manuals and the weekly pilot ritual of inserting revisions into the manual, a dreaded task since flight school.

However, as paper is supplanted, the EFB gets a more central role in the cockpit workflow. New software applications display well-meaning messages and require pilot input; they demand attention and may be perceived as disturbing the workflow. In my company we have a function called e-desk which allows the writing and display of emails and other administrative work. And a message pops up for each email. So if a piece of equipment that is not certified gets such a central role in an otherwise strictly regulated and controlled environment, we have to talk about it.

For example, consider ergonomics. While a pilot can position a piece of paper, a clipboard or a manual in a comfortable way so as to read it and work with it, the usually installed Class 2 EFB devices turn the mechanics around. The pilot has to position his body so he can read and work with the information on the EFB display unit. Admittedly, the location issue on some aircraft has been solved reasonably well.

On my aircraft, a B747-8i using a Class 2 installation, the location of the EFB requires me to turn almost 90 degrees to the side in order to read the display. This leads to interesting body positions in the pilot seat.

As mentioned, lighting and dimming are important issues with all screen displays. I admit that age is a factor, but since many pilots fly until their 65th birthday, we should not dismiss this as a minor issue. To really see all the details on a complex approach chart is quite a task on the EFB displays that I'm familiar with. In addition, labels such as frequencies and notes may cover important information. And while there may be a function to hide the labels, it is still not really acceptable that the highest point on the chart or some obstruction may be covered by a label.

Zoom levels also play a role. Good situational awareness requires an overview of the entire environment. This includes a complete study of all charts of the airport. Among instructing pilots it is well known that the knowledge of details and complex interactions in the manuals has diminished since the introduction of electronic manuals. One reason is that they are more difficult to read in their entirety; another is the fact that they tend to get larger and larger as nobody is tracking how voluminous the manuals actually have become. There seems to be no incentive, intuitively obvious or common sense reason to be efficient with content or restrain their "size." And if you never print them out, you just don't know.

EFBs pop up messages regardless of phase of flight

EFBs may also ask for your attention without regard to the phase of flight. Many well meant messages pop up ("entering such-and-such airspace," "synchronizing," etc). Worst of all, these messages even flash asking for your immediate attention.

All warning and caution messages on the flightdeck follow a strict philosophy established by the aircraft manufacturer as part of the flightdeck layout, and all these procedures are certified by the FAA. However, the software start-up that came up with this great new EFB application and sold it to the operator gets away with interfering with the workflow in the cockpit under the camouflage of being a Type B software application. Remember, a failure condition for Type B is considered a minor hazard or less. If that is the case, why does this app flash notifications like it was an engine fire warning?

And is the failure or malfunction of the takeoff performance calculation really a minor hazard or less? As you prepare for the flight back from EZE to FRA, you might beg to differ. The flight takes over 12 hours of flight time, meaning your heavily loaded B747-8i is close to the limits of its takeoff performance. While your professional experience tells you that you should probably go for the full rated thrust setting for a safe takeoff, the EFB app has a tendency to super-optimize and tries to convince you to set much less power for takeoff.

You might crawl along the runway at a reduced thrust setting that fulfills the legal requirements but seems to replicate the flightpath of Lindbergh's Spirit of St Louis struggling to get airborne for his heroic crossing to Paris. Once you get safely airborne, you wonder if that was really prudent. Stories of takeoffs in Mexico City make this story even more colorful.

Professional pilots should not be heroes, at least not when everything is working fine. They should stay within a safe envelope, always knowing where the limits are. I am not sure if today's EFB installations really help to improve safety or are a possible new source of distraction and confusion.

The more information migrates to the EFB, including maintenance status, recommended vertical profiles, the operational flight plan/flight log, weather, weight and balance, etc, the bigger the chance that important information gets overlooked. It may even duplicate information displayed on certified flight instruments, but be in conflict with it or recommend different numbers, causing unnecessary confusion. My operation already has this problem with the vertical profile of the flight and the flight plan – the Boeing FMS and the EFB app all recommend different flight levels.

Consider reliability of the EFB

There is also the reliability factor to consider. As we overload the EFB computer with lots of new functions in an attempt to replace simple paper with cumbersome software workarounds, the processor starts to get very busy so pilots have to wait for the information they request.

Standardization and certification of EFBs have to be on the agenda. Otherwise some pilots might just go back to good old rules of thumb to be quick, safe and efficient. And let the EFB app play quietly in the background.

Peter Berendsen flies a Boeing 747 as a captain for Lufthansa Airlines. He writes regularly for Pro Pilot on aviation-related subjects.


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