SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE — There are two things you notice right off about the C-21A passenger jet under the command of Air Force Maj. Jared Detloff.
First, the cockpit that Detloff shares with his co-pilot is small and cramped -- as in sardines-in-a-can small and cramped.
Second, the space directly behind the cockpit is jammed with a mountain of printed maps, navigational charts and flight manuals -- nearly 50 pounds of paper that must be tossed out and replaced every two months as the maps and manuals are continuously updated.
Not surprisingly, Detloff and his fellow aviators at the 375th Operations Group jumped at the chance to serve as guinea pigs for an experimental Air Force program to see if an iPad mini tablet could replace the manuals and charts that make up the traditional paper-based flight bag.
So far the new "electronic flight bags" are working better than expected for the pilots who fly Scott's C-21A's, the military version of the Learjet 35 that Scott pilots often use as aeromedical ambulances to ferry military patients to stateside hospitals and clinics.
Detloff acknowledged going through a learning curve as he made the transition to an electronic tablet after a career spent relying on printed books and charts.
"There have been some differences, but so far the reception has been very positive," he said. "This is a 'crawl, walk, run' phase."
On a recent mission to Washington, D.C., Detloff slithered behind the C-21A's W-shaped control yoke. Onto the yoke's column he attached, with a Velcro strip, his iPad mini.
With a few deft movements, his index finger darted across the iPad's display screen, pulling up the flight plan, followed by the departure procedure.
Later, at the end of his flight back to Scott, he touch-screened from the en route flight plan to the radio signal charts marking the instrument landing approach.
Detloff is in charge of data collection for his unit. Which means he switches off from relying on the iPad mini with his co-pilot, who relies on the paper maps and charts. After each flight, the two answer questions on a survey form to assess the iPad's effectiveness compared to the paper documents.
At the end of a 90-day trial set to begin soon, Detloff will tabulate the data, write a report and turn it into the Air Mobility Command, based at Scott, which will make the final call.
The cost savings of the switch to the iPad mini could be significant. Each year alone, taxpayers spend $25,000 to replace the 375th Operations Group's paper manuals and charts with updated printed documents.
"We're sure hoping by the fall we'll get it operationally approved so we can start using it full time," he said. "But that's going to depend on some factors out of our control."
With an iPad mini costing slightly more than $500 apiece, "The devices essentially pay for themselves relatively quickly when you look at how often we have to replace the paper," Detloff said.
The Air Force figures to save millions more in reduced fuel costs, in light of the fact an iPad mini weighs less than 11 ounces, versus the 50 pounds or more of paper it would replace.
The online technology publication ZDNet in May reported that the Air Force expects to save up to $50 million over the next 10 years from savings in fuel, paper and time because of iPads that are being distributed to flight crews throughout the Air Force.
"In any era of budget-cutting, any savings you achieve is definitely worth it," Detloff said, noting that weight equals cost.
"If you carry a 100 pounds of extra stuff on your plane, then every hour you're going to burn three pounds of extra fuel," he said. "If you look at the number of hours we fly, the weight savings is pretty high. Frequently, if we can save 50 pounds, that's going to be more bags, maybe one extra passenger, maybe a little bit more fuel to get the mission a little further."
That same logic led the Air Mobility Command in March 2012 to approve a nearly $9.4 million contract to buy up to 18,000 iPad 2s for use by AMC trainers, pilots, navigators and other flight personnel.
Maj. Pete Brichenough, who oversees the AMC's electronic flight bag program, told Bloomberg News at the time that, with the limited space in the cockpit and "the amount of paper that each crew has to manage, it can quickly become controlled chaos. An electronic flight bag could solve this issue by putting all information in one place to be recalled and updated almost immediately."
The Air Force awarded the contract to a firm called Executive Technology Inc., of Phoenix. The firm will sell the iPad 2s with 32 gigabytes of memory to the Air Force for $520 apiece, compared to the $599 they would cost apiece if bought at a retail store.
But unlike civilian iPads, the ones being bought by Air Force won't allow their users to play "Jetpack Joyride," download any other apps not mission-related or load personal programs. The Air Force iPads link up to a highly secure computer network to keep out hackers and viruses.
The Air Force's adoption of electronic flight bags follows the path already being cut by civilian aviation.
More than two years ago, the Federal Aviation Administration allowed Alaska Airlines to toss out its paper flight bags for tablets, resulting in the savings of 2.4 million pieces of paper, fuel savings from reduced weight and even more cost savings expected from "fewer back and muscle injuries caused by pilots carrying flight bags," according to a statement the airline released in 2011.
Two months later, United Airlines followed suit, deploying 11,000 iPads to all its pilots, resulting to an estimated yearly savings of 326,000 gallons of jet fuel, the airline announced.
The 375th Operations Group received its first iPads about a year ago, along with four other AMC units.
But the 375th's air crews quickly discovered the regular iPad 2s were too big for the cramped C-21 cockpits
"When the mini came out, someone had their own and looked at it, we said this would really meet our needs," said Detloff, who, after a few hours of tinkering in his garage, rigged a Velcro harness to attach the mini to the center of the plane's control yoke.
While the iPad mini has so far been a hit, it does suffer from one big drawback: right now there's no way to use the C-21A's electrical system to recharge it in-flight.
"So if you're going on a long day's mission, you have to make sure it's fully charged prior to the mission," he said. "We didn't have worry about that with paper."
Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at email@example.com or 618-239-2533.