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Preflighting in the Electronic Age

By Chris Hope

September 2017 - Gas in the tank – check. Tires round on top and bottom – check. Two wings, two tail surfaces, one rudder – check. A correct number of propeller blades – check. It looks like we are ready to go.

Actually, I hope that your preflight checklist covers more than this. I hope that it includes everything that the pilot’s operating handbook says it should contain. And I hope that you add the various FAA FlySafe acronyms that remind you to check the weather and your own physical and mental health. And just when you thought that there was nothing more that could possibly be checked, here I am to suggest another area – electronics.

I know that your current pre-takeoff checklist probably includes setting and checking navigation and comm. But just because you went all-electronic with your maps at Christmas last year, don’t think you can ignore all those pesky map requirements. In fact, it is probably a bit harder to comply than it was before.

Back in the day when you carried paper in your flight bag, you checked the expiration date on your sectional or IFR charts and on your approach plate books. If they had expired, you just made yourself a note to pick up current charts and plates when you went to the airport. Then when you settled yourself in the plane, you got out all your paper charts, all neatly folded and ready to go; you put your neatly printed flight log on your kneeboard; and you were set. Well, there is more now. Here are some of the things you might want to keep in mind if you are an electronic sort of pilot. (And thanks to Sporty’s Pilot Shop for helping me remember some of these items.)

The night before your flight, check to see that your batteries in all your hand-held devices are fully charged. Are you carrying a backup hand-held radio? Do you have a flashlight? Better make sure that all those items have fresh batteries. Over the past year or so, I have traded out all my battery-operated devices for new ones, and now everything runs on either a rechargeable battery or a AA battery. Gone are the days of carrying four or five different battery sizes for my various flashlights, portable GPS units, and backup radios.

Are you carrying a hand-held GPS or ADS-B receiver? Make sure they are powered up and ready to go as well. And if you think you are immune to this battery thing because you plug into the utility outlet/lighter, think again. When the aircraft power dies, so does the ability to recharge these items.

Another night-before task that you did not have before is making sure you have current charts on your tablet. Check to make sure that you have your entire flying area covered and that the charts have not expired. Click on “download” if needed. And of course, if you are using an IFR-certified GPS on the plane, make sure that database is up to date as well. You are not going to be able to pick up a new one at the airport.

Flight bag

Load all of your routes and most likely airports. Sure, every app lets you download the airport info as you go, but take it from one who has been there – life is a lot easier if you already have put all the airports in a folder that you can reach with one click. And life is doubly easier if you have already plotted your course on the device in the comfort of your living room and not in a cramped aircraft cabin.

So, let’s get in the plane and get organized. Probably the most common comment I get from students after their first cross-country flight is, “Wow, I wish I had been more organized.”

Where does all of this stuff go? Most of us have wrestled with the question of tablet size – large to read easily or small to hold comfortably. I finally came down to the larger size because I opted for readability, and that works for me in aircraft such as Cessnas and Bonanzas. It does not function well in the Grumman Tiger. In any case, if you are planning to use the tablet as a primary navigation tool, you would like to be able to hold it vertically somewhere and not on your passenger’s lap. Go to your favorite airplane “stuff” website and look at the options regarding mounts. There are mounts that you can suction-cup to a window or instrument panel. And some mounts attach to the yoke. Borrow one if you can before you buy, and find out what works best for you. I will tell you now – you will not find the perfect solution. So, live with the best compromise.

Now that you have all the data loaded, you have fresh, fully charged batteries, and you have found the perfect (okay, acceptable) location. You’re ready to go, right? Well, almost.

I tried out all the various software packages before I settled on the one I like, and I found that they all have one thing in common; they are power hogs. I believe that I can fly about three hours with my app up and running, showing my course and displaying approach plates. And then I start to see my power-remaining indicator dropping down toward the bottom. It makes me almost as nervous as watching the fuel gauges drop down. Have I used that much power already?

You have several options for making the tablet last all day. First, carry a recharging cable that you can plug into the aircraft power. As long as you have a working electrical system, you have a working tablet. Second, carry a small backup battery that you can plug into. (And of course, that is one more thing that you need to recharge before you fly.)

But in addition to adding more electrons to your device while you fly, there are some tricks to using fewer electrons in flight. Turn off all features that you do not need. Some big power users are the Wi-Fi, 3G/4G, and Bluetooth connections. Turn these off and shut down any other apps that you are not using. Also, use the lowest brightness setting that is comfortable for you. And finally, click the unit into “standby” when you are not looking at it.

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