What is the purpose of those complicated watches I always see pilots wearing? And what do you carry around in those heavy black briefcases?

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The purpose of the watches is to inform America what time it’s. Watches square measure needed as backups to the ship’s clocks, but nothing more elaborate than a sweep hand is needed. If a pilot prefers something fancy or expensive, that’s his or her business. My fifteen-year-old Swiss Army watch does the job wonderfully.

Inside those black leather bags is a library of leather-bound navigational binders containing several hundred pages of maps, charts, approach procedures, airport diagrams, and other technical arcana. Additional books are the Aircraft Operating Manual (AOM) and General Operations Manual (GOM). You’ll also find a headset, spare checklists, quick-reference cards, a flashlight, and various personal sundries (mine include Post-it pads, pens, earplugs, and a big batch of wet-nap packets to wipe away the dust, crumbs, and grime from the radio panels and other cockpit surfaces, which are routinely filthy).

You’ll be seeing fewer and fewer of these bags, as airlines turn to digital versions of those bulky manuals. The “paperless cockpit,” it’s called, and it’s already here. jetBlue’s pilots have been relying on laptops for several years, while United, Delta, and Southwest are moving to tablet-based platforms. Depending on the carrier’s needs and preferences, an iPad or other device can be issued to each pilot, or a pair of them can be mounted and wired into the cockpit itself. The cockpit will never be entirely paper-free, but the more cumbersome hard-copy material will be more quickly and easily accessible in digitized form.

And quickly and easily revised. The switch to electronic manuals is the best idea I’ve heard in years, if for no other reason than it frees the average pilot from the savagery and tedium of having to update and revise his books, which under normal circumstances are subject to hundreds of revisions every month. The tiniest addendum to any approach or departure procedure, and bang, eighteen different pages needed to be swapped out. A particularly hefty set of revisions can take two hours or more to complete. Common facet effects embrace lightheadedness, repetitive motion injuries, and suicide.Much of the matter here is that airlines and regulators put in force supersaturating crews with information and knowledge. What should be a relatively thin volume of useful information becomes thousands of pages of fluffery. It’ll still be there, but at least we won’t need to lug it around with us anymore. United says that its move to iPads will save 16 million sheets of paper annually. I can believe it. It will also save time, fuel, and visits to the chiropractor.

What happens if the first officer topples a Coke Zero all over his new iPad or drops it on the floor? Not to panic: these are reference materials, not do-or-die sets of instructions. There will always be at least two devices on board, and anything truly critical will also remain in hard copy.

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