The Paperless GA Cockpit: Are We There Yet?

Paper or Electric? If you asked most General Aviation pilots if having a handheld, color, moving-map GPS means that they can leave their charts at home, they would (hopefully) laugh at you. Ah, but what if you had an IFR-approved, approach-capable panel-mount unit coupled to a three-axis autopilot? That was an intentionally loaded question, because the answer is apparently still ‘negative.’ In fact, even if you have a heavy iron flight management system, believe it or not, the answer again is, ‘no.’ Why? Here are some good reasons:

  • Though almost all approach procedures can be coded, some procedures involve radar vectors or contingent procedures.
  • Navigation databases don’t include step-down fixes between the final approach fix (FAF) and the missed approach point (MAP). Some avionics systems would interpret intermediate fixes as a MAP and prematurely switch from approach mode back to terminal area mode (which is three times less accurate).
  • Many navigation systems use only point-to-point legs defined by geographic points on the ground, which automatically excludes types such as a runway heading climb to an altitude, intercepting a radial from a vector (not an unusual departure procedure), or DME arcs. You are responsible for flying these charted procedures (or a textual narrative), and not your magic box!
  • Some procedures in your database are actually off-limits, such as private airports or private procedures (yes there is such a thing), but GPS and FMS boxes don’t know which ones. If you don’t have it on paper, you can’t fly it.
  • Many databases don’t have the less restrictive Class D and E airspace. (Also, they don’t show Class A.)
  • Minimum descent altitudes (MDA), decision altitudes (DA), minimum obstruction clearance altitudes (MOCA), minimum reception altitudes (MRA), etc. aren’t usually included in databases. Someday, they probably will be.

You don’t have to conduct extensive research into software requirement specification documents to find out about these reasons. You will find this information in Jeppesen’s Airway Manual service, in their Briefing Bulletins DEN 01-D through 01-D4, issued 11 May, 2001 (and which were actually amendments of earlier bulletins issued on April 27). There are exceptions for VFR flying, though. Oddly enough, if you use JeppView, and you’re not ‘transporting people’ you can launch with your laptop, and leave your paper charts behind. (At least that’s what Jeppesen told me when I called them.)

The Rules: If you look through the Federal Aviation Regulations to find just where it does say, ‘thou shalt carry paper charts,’ you won’t find it. But if you find yourself in IMC, or even if you’re just IFR — and suddenly without electrical power — or your navigation system malfunctions, there’s one regulation that someone will point to, and that’s 91.103. (You know, the one that mentions ‘all available information’…) So the biggest and most underlying reason to bring paper into the cockpit is: Electrons. Like the police, sometimes they’re never around when you need ’em.

The Moral: IFR flying isn’t a time to placate the Lorax. Trust, but verify. Use paper!

Note: All Jeppesen dealers were recently provided a memo detailing the limitations of electronic navigation aids.