Air Force seeks 18,000 iPads for cargo flight crews

Air Mobility Command plans to replace paper manuals and navigation charts with electronic flight bags.

This story has been updated and revised to clarify that the Air Force is looking for iPad2 or equivalent devices.

The Air Force organization responsible for hauling troops and equipment around the world plans to buy up to 18,000 Apple iPads to replace the paper charts and technical manuals its flight crews carry. Air Mobility Command's planned purchase is potentially the largest single federal order for the tablet computer widely embraced in the commercial marketplace but with low government sales due to security concerns.

In January, the Air Force Special Operations Command said it planned to buy 2,861 iPad2 tablet computers to serve as electronic flight bags for its crews.

AMC said in a notice posted on the Federal Business Opportunities website Thursday that it planned to buy "a minimum of 63 and a maximum of 18,000, iPad 2, Brand Name or Equal devices" for the crews that fly cargo aircraft such as the C-5 Galaxy and C-17 Globemaster. Lt. Col. Glen Roberts, AMC public affairs director, said the command "is looking for a tablet device, not necessarily an iPad."

The command intends to issue a request for proposals at an unspecified date to buy the tablets at the lowest price through a firm, fixed price, indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract.

Maj. Gen. Rick Martin, AMC director of operations, said in December 2011 that "moving from a paper-based to an electronically based flight publication system will not only enhance operational effectiveness, it can also save the Department of Defense time and money."

Military officials elsewhere also are anxious to get Apple's mobile technologies into the hands of troops. The Apple operating system, which powers both the iPhone and iPad, has not yet received security certification from the National Institutes of Standards and Technology. Michael McCarthy, who runs the Army's smartphone project, estimated in November that it would be nine months to a year before the system was certified -- August 2012 at the earliest.

Nonetheless, McCarthy was planning to send 20 iPhones to a unit in Afghanistan he declined to identify.

The 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) equipped crews of attack helicopters, AV-8B Harrier jets and KC-130J aircraft with iPads in Afghanistan last summer. The project was initiated by a pilot, Capt. Jim "Hottie" Carlson, an AH-1W Cobra pilot with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 369, according to a Marine Corps press release.

Maj. Marc Blankenbicker, the lead fire control officer for the KC-130J detachment, said the iPad can store the equivalent of 500 grid reference charts. "Instead of scanning sheets of paper, we type in a sector name or a four-digit grid coordinate and the iPad will center on the desired area," he said.

Although Air Mobility Command did not specify whether it planned to use National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency flight information publications, which are updated monthly, or commercial flight charts, the Jeppesen division of Boeing Co. said in a press release it plans to offer military versions of its Mobile FliteDeck software for the iPad this year.

In May 2011, the Federal Aviation Administration approved electronic flight bags for commercial carriers using digital navigation charts provided by Jeppesen.

The FliteDeck software can be downloaded from the Apple App Store. A package of worldwide navigation charts takes up 1.5 gigabytes of memory, or about 10 percent of the memory available on a low-end iPad, which has 16 gigabytes of memory.