At this point, there really should not be a debate about the beneficial changes implemented during the electronic charting “revolution.” Overlaying a GPS-derived position onto an accurate chart in real time is a trick even entry-level consumer-grade devices can do, with the right software and data. And with the advent of digitized paper charts on those same devices, it’s never been easier—or less expensive—for pilots to keep up with their charting needs. Until I went all-electronic, I’d always used government charts, first provided by NOAA, and then by the FAA’s AeroNav branch. I chose them over Jeppesen’s offerings because the booklets were easier to update than Jepp’s loose-leaf binder system for several reasons.
One of them involved the Change Notice (CN), a booklet published half-way through the cycle, which included all the procedures revised since the last printing 28 days earlier. It was current for another 28 days. Using it was simple: Before launching, check the CN to see if your destination and any possible alternates were listed. If so, make a note, mental or otherwise, to use the CN if you were going to execute an affected procedure. With electronic charting, however, it’s more cumbersome to track changes. But presuming the underlying data is up to date in both your panel-mounted navigator and your electronic charting device, the correct chart always will be displayed, right? Well, maybe not.
Familiarity, meet Contempt
We all have airports, ATC facilities, arrivals, departures and approach procedures with which we’ve become (too?) familiar. For many years, an approach procedure I came to know, love and loathe was the ILS to Runway 16L at what was then my home plate, Manassas Regional/Harry P. Davis Field (KHEF) in Manassas, Va., just southwest of Washington, D.C.
Compared to a “model” ILS, it had a few quirks, including lack of an outer marker, a final approach path slightly offset to the east of the runway centerline and a decision altitude (DA) of 250 feet, versus the standard 200. It had been this way as long as I can remember and before writing this article, if I had to brief that approach, those features are some of the ones I’d expect. But no longer.
As of the navigation system update cycle beginning February 6, 2014, a redesigned procedure has been in effect. The new one doesn’t magically install an outer marker beacon, but it does straighten out the final approach course and lower the DA to 200. Numerous other changes with this procedure have gone into effect, also, some of which are detailed in the sidebar on page 22.
Before the advent of electronic charting, I would receive a hard copy of the CN in the mail and peruse it for changes to facilities I frequent. The changes at KHEF would have leapt off the table of contents and I would note the new procedures, then stick the CN in my chart bag. If I had an upcoming trip, presence of the CN alerted me to check it again before launching, when I’d remember to use it.
The images on the opposite page are screenshots from Garmin’s Pilot app running on an Android-based tablet. The left image reproduces an FDC Notam referencing the same runway at KHEF, 16L, but the RNAV (GPS) approach procedure. You’d certainly want to have and know of this Notam if you planned to use KHEF. And if that’s your plan, the Notam is your first clue there may be some changes with other procedures at the airport.
That screenshot was made while planning a hypothetical flight to KHEF before the revised charts went into effect on February 6. It’s reasonable to presume the changes made by the Notam are reflected in the newly effective chart depicting the RNAV (GPS) Rwy 16L procedure, right? Reasonable, perhaps, but erroneous. In fact, the new chart does incorporate some of the altimeter-setting verbiage found in the Notam, but not all of it. Omitted is some text increasing visibilities when using the Dulles International altimeter setting. The Notam references amendment 1A to the procedure, but the new chart is labeled “Amdt 1.” The accompanying image verifies the tablet is loaded with a current database, and includes amendment 1, but not amendment 1A.
Finally, ensuring your panel-mounted equipment has a current database doesn’t mean you have everything you need, either. As the sidebar on the previous page notes, Jeppesen discovered it used incorrect coordinates in the database expiring February 6 for two procedures at the Newark (N.J.) Liberty International Airport (KEWR), and advised those procedures should not be flown using the specified databases until new data became available at the beginning of the next publishing cycle.
What’s It All Mean?
Even before electronic charts went mainstream, pilots still needed to check Notams and use the information therein to update themselves and their flight information. That hasn’t changed, and never will. What has changed, however, is the complexity and nuances involved.
For one thing, there are more procedures than ever before, leading to more details and more opportunities for errors to creep into the data. As the U.S. transitions to the NexGen system, multiple ground-based facilities will be going out of service, creating more changes but, in the long term, fewer procedures. For another, the electronic charting revolution means more vendors are supplying flight-critical data than ever before. And even those providing the data for our certified, panel-mounted equipment can’t always get it right. Some of this was a lot easier when all we had were paper charts and Notams, but now we must check multiple sources to ensure we have all the information available. Some of it may not be critical to safely completing the average pilot’s flight on the average day in the average personal airplane to the average airport.
Then again it may be. One of the concepts underlying the digitization of all this data was improved accuracy. And there’s no doubt accuracy has improved. But we’re not finished yet, and we still must be on the lookout for errors and changes.