Editor's Log

December 2000 Issue




Risky Safety

Charts from the internet is a great idea, but creates new risks

At AOPA Expo 2000 in Long Beach, Calif., the organization announced a great benefit that will doubtlessly save many pilots from disaster.

Unfortunately, it will probably lead some pilots into trouble they might not otherwise have.

Beginning next month, AOPA members will be able to download current NOS instrument approach charts for free. Print ’em, store ’em on your Palm Pilot or display them on your laptop.

This is a good thing, because it will stop many pilots from flying with outdated (or nonexistent) charts. Show me an infrequent IFR pilot and I’ll show you someone without a subscription who tries to run down to the pilot shop before making a trip. Strike one excuse.

The access will also take some of the hassle out of mid-trip changes of plans. Many are the pilots who find themselves someplace like Chattanooga expecting to go home to the Northeast, only to find out they have to be in Chicago the next day. Download the new charts and you don’t have to worry about finding a pilot store in an unfamiliar town.

In addition, the new program will allow VFR pilots to get runway diagrams easily. Who knows, they may even become interested enough to look at a chart long enough to figure out where to look when those instrument pilots report their position as “inbound on the procedure turn NDB 16 approach.”

But there are some insidious dangers.

Foremost is that pilots will be left with less than a full arsenal of tools should they encounter difficulties en route. Whereas you have a whole state or four at your fingertips with a bound booklet of approach plates, now you may have your intended destination and alternate. What if the gyros crap out 200 miles from there in low IMC? Think you’ll want to dial up AOPA’s web site with your laptop and cell phone at 9,000 feet and 160 knots?

Another potential problem is one that doesn’t crop up often, but when it does you’re outta luck. The charts will be downloadable as PDF files – a kind of file routinely used to create images of documents to transfer over the internet. The software is reliable, but hardly foolproof.

Anyone who uses the files for any length of time comes across cases where the document just doesn’t look right after it’s converted. It doesn’t happen often, but do you really want to find garble in your chart as you brief for an approach into Atlanta when the ceilings are at 250 feet? Many pilots will be tempted to download or print the chart and head for the airport without assessing the quality of information to which they’re about to entrust their lives.

Add to that the potential problems of version compatibility between different versions of Acrobat, the most popular software to read PDF files, and it’s clear that the new capability, while useful and exciting, is hardly foolproof.

Do yourself a favor, fly with current charts. If you like free, then download them from AOPA and use them. But do yourself another couple of favors. Review what you’ve got before you take off, and occasionally buy a book of plates to keep in the airplane. Just in case.


-Ken Ibold