How a new planning / briefing tool can benefit your flying!
Using a new planning/briefing tool can be a little intimidating, particularly when you are unfamiliar with modern “tablet” devices; but with a few key pointers to get you started, you will soon discover the many advantages such systems bring to your flying – whether you use them purely in a pre-flight context, or in the cockpit for in-flight navigation as well.
There are a great many apps out there, but in this piece I will focus entirely on SkyDemon, arguably the best-developed for European VFR. Before I begin though, one piece of advice which holds firm regardless of what product you choose is:
PLAY WITH IT BEFORE RELYING ON IT.
All systems have unique methods to access functions, despite their similarity of purpose; being aware of the methods your system uses means that, particularly at times of high workload, you are reaching for the right button rather than wondering where the right button is. With SkyDemon there has been a lot of work done, not only to make the interface context sensitive (ie, you only see buttons and options that are relevant and useful) , but also tactile and fun to use. A great piece of advice is to sit down with it and create routes that you may never fly, but would be a challenge to plan. Touch on an airfield to get started, and then touch on subsequent map points to draw a simple route to begin with. Once a route is plotted, you can open the “Flight Details” tab on the right, which will show a list of potential airspace /terrain/etc which conflict with your route. You can then use a finger drag to adjust your route, and watch as the conflict list adjusts itself; you will also note that you can perform this so-called “Rubber-banding” action in the vertical profile of your route at the bottom of the screen. In this way you can make small adjustments and gradually refine your route after seeing the results of each change.
Once you have made a satisfactory plan, one extremely useful thing you can do in SkyDemon is to simulate a flight with it. This will flip SkyDemon into “Go Flying” mode, but the aircraft will move without GPS data and attempt to fly the planned route. Just sit and observe the warnings and notifications that you can expect to see when you actually fly that route; you can also move the aircraft with your finger and simulate situations that you might expect to find yourself in. While this is running, you can practice finding information from the various tabs and menus, and familiarise yourself with functions that you might reach for when you fly for real. For example, it is possible to press and hold on the map to select a point, and then quickly draw a route-line to that point direct, but you could alternatively press and hold on the SkyDemon orb, which is a shortcut to the direct to menu and will give a list of nearby airfields. Both methods are for routing direct, but are each more useful in different, specific circumstances – instinctively knowing which one to reach for will come after spending some time playing with the simulator. It is also worth spending a little time thinking about how you physically interact with your tablet. Modern touchscreens are much more sensitive than older ones, and you might find that if you press hard on the screen, the device registers that touch as a little “swipe” rather than the intended “press”; practicing with the interface while on the ground will highlight the circumstances where you get unintended results. You might find that you get better results from “resting” your finger on the screen instead of “pressing”. Consider mounting your tablet in such a way that you have something to rest your wrist on to increase stability in turbulent conditions and thus improve precision of touchscreen presses.
As you plan and execute more and more flights with SkyDemon, you will find your confidence growing stronger. You will have gotten to grips with the basics, but there is always more to discover and new ways to use even the most basic functions. With SkyDemon it is trivially easy to make a good plan, but why not make a few backup plans as well?
You can make great use of the satellite view, so that you can give yourself an idea of what the ground beneath you will look like at your planned turning points – this can be achieved by press-and-holding on the desired map point, selecting that point from the “What’s Here?” menu, and choosing “Satellite Map”. In the case of airfields that form part of your route, you can choose “Explore” from the “Airfields” tab which will overlay circuit diagrams and noise abatement areas on the satellite image – extremely useful for unfamiliar airfields.
Moving onwards, once you have got a feel for the various functions in SkyDemon, and understood which ones you will find most useful for your personal flying, the next thing will be to adjust the various planning and navigation options to further customise the app. “Planning Options” govern all the various warnings and minima for the planning phase, which are the triggers for warnings to appear in the “Flight Details” tab that I mentioned earlier; take some time to make sure that your warnings are set appropriately for your needs – a helicopter pilot might want to set the “minimum safe altitude” to be a bit more forgiving, for example.
Some pilots might decide to be warned about literally everything in the planning phase, but to not have certain types of airspace generate warnings in the navigation phase, or to perhaps “suppress all warnings when flying planned course”, which is an extra option in the “Navigation Options”. It is definitely worth spending some time making sure that these options are set optimally for you, and once you have confirmed that, you can save those settings so that you don’t have to go through the whole process again when installing SkyDemon on a new device. There is plenty more to discover, so dive in and see how SkyDemon can make your flying easier and more fun.