Air Force to provide Special Ops flight crews with iPads

Electronic flight bag will replace paper navigation charts and manuals.

The Air Force Special Operations Command plans to junk paper navigation charts and technical manuals and replace them with digital versions stored on Apple iPad tablet computers issued to every crew member. The shift from paper to digital materials follows similar moves by operators in the commercial aviation industry.

The command said in a Dec. 29, 2011, justification and approval notice that it plans to acquire 2,861 iPad 2s to serve as electronic flight bags for its crews. Air Force officials determined after a three-month product evaluation completed last fall that only the Apple tablet met the command's requirements.

Command officials tested tablets in five aircraft, including the vertical takeoff and landing CV-22 Osprey, and determined that the iPad "outmatched all peer competitors -- not only meeting but exceeding AFSOC mission specifications."

The iPads will contain digital versions of National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Flight Information Publications for navigation, which are updated as often as every month, and aircraft technical manuals. The transition to an electronic flight bag will cut printing costs and reduce the time needed to manually distribute paper versions, the notice said.

The Air Mobility Command conducted a test of electronic flight bags in 2011 and said it plans to make a decision this spring on using them in its entire fleet of cargo aircraft after it conducts an in-depth analysis. Maj. Gen. Rick Martin, director of operations for the command, said it "has been looking at tablet and mobile devices for several years as possible tools for increasing mission productivity, decreasing office automation costs and achieving other potential benefits such as portability and flexibility."

Maj. Pete Birchenough, who ran the Air Mobility Command tablet computer flight test, said switching to digital products would cut down on the massive amount of paper manuals and flight charts carried on each aircraft, which he estimated to be about 70 pounds.

In May 2011, the Federal Aviation Administration approved the use of iPads as electronic flight bags for commercial carriers using digital navigation charts provided by the Jeppesen division of Boeing.

Last August, United Continental Holdings announced it will provide all 11,000 of its pilots with iPad electronic flight bags loaded with Jeppesen Mobile FliteDeck software that includes global navigation charts.

The Air Force Special Operations Command plans to equip its iPads with GoodReader software from Good.iware, which meets mission security requirements. GoodReader encrypts individual files to ensure data is secure even if an iPhone or iPad is lost or stolen. AFSOC said its iPads will be equipped with Wi-Fi communications for manual updates through a global network infrastructure.

The iPad procurement is not vendor specific and any Apple reseller can bid on the contract, the AFSOC notice said.