October 1, 2009
By Dave Hirschman
Electronic distribution of IFR charts and approach plates has long held the promise of reducing the cost and simplifying the task of keeping IFR subscriptions current. The catch for pilots and aircraft owners is that, so far, it hasn’t always worked out that way.
As glass cockpits capable of displaying electronic approach plates and standalone electronic flight bags proliferate, some of the companies that supply digital chart information have found ways to charge as much—or more—for electronic chart subscriptions than the paper charts they replace. In fairness, the electronic subscriptions also offer convenience and many additional services—but the promise of lower costs for users hasn’t been fully realized.
Now John Baute, a software designer in Blacksburg, Virginia, intends to change all that. The instrument-rated Mooney pilot has launched PDF Plates, a Web site that allows anyone to download current IFR approach charts, SIDS, STARs, and AFDs for free. Unlike aviation Web sites that allow pilots to gather the information one approach plate at a time, PDF Plates bundles them by state and region. Once downloaded, the files can be printed, or stored on a variety of tablet PCs (including the Sony Reader and Kindle) for use in the cockpit.
“This whole thing started in March when I tried to figure out a way to put approach plates on my BlackBerry,” said Baute, 37. “It didn’t work out well because the BlackBerry screen is just too small. But the application looked good on my brother’s tablet PC, and it looks even better on a Kindle DX.”
Other companies have used a variety of tablet PCs to display approach plates with mixed results. Reader Plates offers a variety of economical IFR approach-chart subscriptions based on the popular Sony Reader, and recently added the Kindle. AirBrief.com also uses the Kindle as its preferred platform for electronic charts, aviation publications, and weather reports.
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The newest version of Amazon’s Kindle DX has a 9.7-inch screen that enlarges approach plates to slightly more than full size. Designed to download and display digital books, the gadgets carry a retail price of just under $500.
Baute said he uses the Kindle DX in the cockpit to show approach plates and his wife uses it on the beach for pleasure reading. “Not everyone wants to spend $500 on a Kindle, and I understand that,” Baute said. “Flying’s expensive enough already. That’s why I just decided to put PDF Plates out there and let people have access to this information for free.”
Baute said he wrote the software code as an intellectual exercise, has no business plan, and didn’t intend to make a commercial product. Sharing information with fellow pilots seemed like a way to contribute to the aviation community and carry on the noncommercial, information-sharing traditions the founders of the World Wide Web intended.
“I’ve got a day job,” he said. “This was just something I did to see if I could do it.”
Baute said aviation organizations have approached him to discuss paid advertising on his Web site or possible future partnerships. But so far, he’s content with an electronic “tip jar” that allows users to make contributions.
“As long as donations allow me to cover the hosting costs,” he said, “I’ll keep it as is.”
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