Every seat's a window seat on BruceAir
Voyager, my favorite flight-planning program (more about Voyager later), also prints current instrument approach charts and other essential information that I can carry along in the cockpit. Many FBOs have computers in the flight-planning room, so even when you’re away from home, you can take care of preflight business via the Web.
But not all airports offer such services—the office may not even be open, as I recently discovered on a fine Saturday morning at Walla Walla, an airport with an operating control tower and airline service but nobody at the FBO on weekends.
Cell phone service, however, is available at most airports, and thanks to products like WingX from Hilton Software LLC, all of the online aviation-related services I've come to rely on are available through a Web-enabled PDA, Blackberry or Smartphone (the current list of supported devices is on the WingX website).
WingX turns a SmartPhone, BlackBerry or PDA into a Star Trek tricorder for pilots— an easy-to-use combination of the Aviation Digital Data Service, A/FD, NACO chart binder, E6B, and W&B handbook that you can hold in one hand.
I’ve recently made extensive use of WingX on my AT&T Tilt during IFR and VFR trips around the U.S. WingX doesn’t supplant the other tools that I use, mostly because the large screen and full keyboard of a real PC make detailed planning and briefing easier to accomplish. But WingX has become an essential part of my flight kit, especially when I want to update information quickly or close a flight plan without unpacking and firing up my laptop—or when Wi-Fi isn’t available.
Like DUAT Mobile (a free weather and flight plan service), WingX provides direct access to weather reports and forecasts. But WingX adds easy access to current IAP charts, detailed airport information, built-in calculators for solving weight-and-balance and E6B problems (e.g., density altitude and wind correction angles), and other features. Flight plan filing is available via CSC DUATS (one of the two providers of free DUATS service).
Jeppesen recently licensed WingX as the foundation for its new Jeppesen Mobile service for PDAs and Smartphones. To learn more about the Jeppesen version, download the Jeppesen Mobile User's Guide (pdf).
The hardest thing to get right on a mobile application is the user interface (UI). Today’s PDAs and Smartphones have far more processing power than the computers in the Apollo spacecraft, so they’re more than up to the task of crunching flight-planning numbers. Making that power accessible through a small touch screen and miniature keyboard is a real trick, however, and WingX offers a clean, simple, intuitive set of menus and visual cues.
All of the core features in WingX are logically arranged on the main screen, which appears after you accept a couple of standard disclaimers.
Use a stylus, your finger, or navigation keys on your mobile device to select the feature that you want to use, and from that point, fill in a couple of boxes and tap menu choices to get the information you want.
To return to the main menu, tap Pages at the bottom of any screen.
For example, tap or select Wx Text on the main page, and a simple form pops into view. Fill in the ID of an airport, select the information you want to see from a drop-down menu, and the latest METAR, TAF, or other information appears.
WingX automatically provides the same information for nearby airports; you don’t have to enter lists of identifiers to get an expanded view of current and forecast conditions.
Color codes used on many weather pages are a nice touch. For example, each block of text in a METAR is highlighted with a color bar at the left. Green blocks mark VFR conditions. Blue denotes MVFR weather. Red is for IFR conditions, and magenta warns you of LIFR.
Elsewhere, similar color codes alert you to stale data. Blue denotes a report that is less than one hour old. Green blocks mark reports issued within the last 15 minutes, and red highlights warn you about data received more than an hour ago.
The METAR List option, another example of the thought that went into the WingX UI, provides a compact, easy-to-scan overview of weather, especially if you can rotate the display on your device to landscape orientation.
Nothing beats pictures when you are trying to decode AIRMETS and radar reports. Tap Wx Images on the main page, and WingX provides a handy, expandable list of important graphical weather products.
For example, a typical icing AIRMET graphic shows you the irregular polygon that, in the text-based warning, is defined by hard-to-decode VOR and airport indentifiers.
For a broad overview of flight conditions, choose US Flight Conditions from the list, and you see a map that clearly shows where things are, well, not so clear.
You can check the latest radar data the same way. As on all maps and graphics pages in WingX, you can zoom in and out and drag the image to bring a different area into view.
It takes only a few seconds to download the latest information and display it on your screen.
The weather trend display is one feature not readily available from many other flight-planning tools.Even on the small screen of a Smartphone, it’s easy to interpret the recent histories of visibility, ceiling, and other important weather data.
WingX includes a full-featured A/FD, with all the essential information you need to drop in on or depart from an unfamiliar airport. When you tap A/FD on the main screen, the menu along the bottom of the display changes to give you quick access to communication frequencies, runway information, and other data.
Now, these charts aren’t a substitute for having the paper plate in your yoke clip. But they can, for example, help you make preflight decisions about alternates. The charts aren’t readable when you zoom out to view the entire page, but you can zoom in and out and scroll to glean the essential information.
If your device has a built-in or Bluetooth GPS, your position is overlaid on the charts—handy when you have the airport diagram on the screen as you prepare to taxi.
Even with the limitations imposed by the Smartphone form-factor, these charts can be handy. For example, I print the procedures that I think I’ll use from my PC-based flight planning program Voyager. But the other day, I neglected to get the KIENO TWO SID for KBLI, and naturally, it was included in my clearance. I could load it into the Garmin GNS530W in the panel, but I needed a quick review of the written instructions to confirm altitudes and other information. WingX came to the rescue. I was able to note the essentials not available on the GPS map and fly the procedure as cleared.
It’s been years since I solved a wind triangle problem on the back of my trusty E6B. But I still use the gizmo to calculate density altitude and to estimate fuel requirements. WingX can handle those chores, too.
For example, if you fill in the boxes at the top of the Route page, WingX prepares a basic flight log; the calculations include the latest information about the forecast winds aloft.
If you use a flight planning program like Voyager, you can send routes to WingX on your Smartphone or PDA. The process is simple and fast, and it saves a lot tedious typing and data-entry errors.
WingX provides weight-and-balance templates for many supported aircraft models, and you can extract data such as the actual empty weight and moment from the airplane flight manual and enter it into WingX to customize the W&B information for your airplane.
After you provide your aircraft's vital statistics, working W&B problems is a snap—just fill in the boxes with the weights for a specific flight and verify that you’re within the envelope.
WingX notes the expected fuel burn and calculates the landing W&B to ensure that you'll also end a flight within limits.
Note that the bottom of the W&B page includes a row of numbers to make inputting data easy.
That little feature is typical of the nice touches you'll find throughout WingX.
WingX even comes in handy when you’re trying to win a beer bet about the FARs or AIM. The internal library isn’t a complete reference to every section, but most of the topics you need to settle a typical pilot v. pilot debate are readily available.
If you’re intrigued by WingX, you can download the complete WingX manual (a free pdf) to learn about all the program’s features before you buy. You can also download the program directly from the website.
WingX for the Smartphone costs $129.95, including a one-year data subscription. More information about the new BlackBerry version is available at the WingX website.
Details about the cost for other WingX versions and chart/data subscriptions are available from the WingX website.