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Tablet Trouble

Tablet Trouble

1st/101st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion
Fort Campbell, Kentucky

With the growing need for information at our fingertips, aviators lean heavily on electronic devices in the cockpit. All publications related to flying duties can now be replaced by a kneeboard-sized iPad Mini, which is incredibly convenient. While these devices allow for more efficient mission planning and flying, they do create some interesting questions and gray areas.

Army Regulation (AR) 95-1 briefly covers the use of electronic flight bags (EFBs), but it does not address some key issues. I had a standardization pilot (SP) ask, “How do you use it with your gloves on?” to a group of our pilots. Most were quiet — not wanting to admit they simply take off a glove in flight to use the touchscreen. You can sometimes find iPad-friendly gloves designed to work with touchscreens, but those are hard to come by through supply, so the aviator has to personally order a pair if they want them. Most of the time, though, they just cut a fingertip off their gloves, which makes them unserviceable. A stylus could be used, but that is viewed as inconvenient. And as we all know, safety is most likely the first thing to be disregarded in the name of convenience.

Another issue is where do you put the iPad? Managing a cockpit in a high-stress environment has always been a challenge, but we continue to introduce new ways of helping us stay situationally aware of what’s going on around us. We already likely have something strapped to our leg, so using an iPad like a kneeboard is not easy. Most have found they need it easily accessible so they can actually read it.

Civilian pilots often have their iPads attached to their aircraft. However, AR 95-1 states an EFB cannot be mounted in Army aircraft. In an AH-64, there aren’t many options where to store an iPad, so where does it usually get placed? They wind up on the dashboard with every other random item and checklist. But it’s up to the individual to manage their cockpit and ensure anything they bring in doesn’t accidentally become foreign object debris (FOD), which is what happened on the following mission.

During a combat training center (CTC) rotation, our company of AH-64s conducted a multi-ship deliberate attack mission that required nap-of-the-earth (NOE) flight and prolonged periods at an out-of-ground effect (OGE) hover. Flight lead was crewed with the company SP and a junior pilot (PI) still in progression. The mission was a typical fly-to-a-battle-position-and-wait-for-the enemy-to-appear scenario, but it was all new to the PI in the front seat. His situational awareness (SA) was appropriate for his hour level, and he was struggling to evaluate the battlefield and find the enemy. To keep SA and stay ahead of the mission and guide his front-seater, the back-seater decided he needed both his issued iPad Mini and his personal full-sized iPad. This eliminated the need for him to switch between applications but introduced a problem — the dash space quickly became occupied. The full-sized iPad found its home on the left side of the dash, above the collective.

When established in the battle position and at an OGE hover about 20 feet above the treetops, the back-seater made a quick reference to his personal iPad so he could get the PI on target. He then placed the iPad back on the left side of the dash without much thought. While engrossed in the PI’s forward-looking infrared (FLIR) video to ensure he was looking at the right place, he didn’t notice his iPad wasn’t placed all the way to the blast shield that separates the crew stations. The iPad fell off the dash and struck the collective, causing an immediate descent into the trees.

The aircraft sunk into the tree canopy just below the main rotor blades before the back-seater was able to arrest the descent with a drastic correction of collective. The increase resulted in an overtorque of the engine and underspeed of the rotor system, but it saved the aircraft and crew. Luckily, that iPad did not further interfere with the flight controls, and the back-seater was able to return to a safe landing area. Unfortunately, the tail rotor blades either struck the trees or became damaged from the sudden rotor system slowdown, resulting in a Class C investigation. The result could have been catastrophic considering the aircraft’s proximity to the trees.

After this incident, the company thought twice about what pilots brought into the cockpit and how to manage their mission and personal items. The iPad has certainly replaced many aviation planning and flying techniques, but we have to constantly adapt to how we manage our cockpits as we introduce new ways to become more efficient. We were quick to adopt the iPad due to it being such a staple in civilian flight but gave little thought into how it should be adapted to a military cockpit. It will most likely take a tactical pause to evaluate how we use these devices and develop company-level standing operating procedures.


  • 5 May 2024
  • Author: USACRC Editor
  • Number of views: 173
  • Comments: 0
Categories: On-DutyAviation