One aspect of simulation which is identical to the real thing is the use of charts. Whether a professional real-world pilot approaching Heathrow International or a virtual pilot, the correct approach chart will need to be consulted, interpreted correctly, and followed if a safe landing is to be assured.
LEFT: The traditional leather-bound binder that contains hundreds of Jeppesen charts. This particular binder belonged to Gene Mac Farland, a Captain who flew for 30 years with Continental Airlines.
Not so long ago, Jeppesen Charts provided the mainstay for all professional navigation charts and these thin paper charts were carried in a brown leather binder. Pilots carried a number of binders with them to allow access to the appropriate chart where necessary. It was the responsibility of the pilot to ensure that the contents were up-to-date and reflected the latest chart; a tedious task.
Later years have witnessed the introduction of computers and several companies, including Jeppesen, have provide electronic charts that can be viewed using laptops, smart phones and apple i-pads. The days of lugging binders is now over, and a binder such the one depicted in the above photograph have become, for the most part, keepsakes and door stops.
Virtual pilots have a tendency to ‘collect’ charts from innumerable locations. The collection can become quite large, and often it is difficult to collate the charts in such a way that it is easy to find the wanted chart, let alone know whether the chart is the most accurate up-to-date version.
Serious simulator enthusiasts have probably heard of the European-based company Navigraph. For several years the company has been responsible for the production and distribution of AIRAC cycles that are used to update the Flight Management System (FMS) to maintain the accuracy of the navigation database.
AIRAC is an acronym for Aeronautical Information Regulation And Control. An AIRAC cycle contains the current aviation regulations, procedures, and charts for airport, runway, airspace, Instrument Approach Procedures (IAP), Standard Terminal Arrival Routes (STAR), and Standard Instrument Departures (SID). The AIRAC cycle updates the database used by the aircraft's FMC/CDU.
Without this up-to-date data it is not possible to program the FMC/CDU with any degree of accuracy.
Navigraph provide a subscription service to AIRAC cycles which are updated several times a year (usually there are thirteen cycles per year)
Navigraph, in addition to supplying regular updated AIRAC cycles, has implemented three additional products: airport charts, video tutorials and en-route charts. These products are available via an annual subscription from a data cloud database and/or desktop program.
BELOW: Area of coverage of Navigraph charts (image courtesy of Navigraph). This link provides an up-to-date coverage area for Navigraph charts.
Airport charts include up-to-date charts for approximately 13,000 airports worldwide. Chart information includes at a minimum: runway data, instrument approach procedures, standard terminal arrival routes and standard instrument departures. To date, there are approximately 40,000 charts and the number is regularly being expanded with quarterly updates.
Furthermore, several dozen video tutorials instructing in the correct interpretation and use of approach charts are available in addition to dozens of en-route charts which include upper and lower airways.
The information depicted on the charts originates from suppliers of real-world aviation charts (Navtech) and depicts the latest data, in a format that has been designed by human factor research to be user friendly.
Unlike other companies that have attempted to provide charts for virtual pilots (for example, sim charts), Navigraph charts have been vector scanned in high resolution providing a dataset that can be easily enlarged as required, read, and if required printed in high definition. Additionally, the information is in colour.
Ease of Access - Key Feature
In a nutshell, Navigraph has allowed a virtual pilot access to information that otherwise would require considerable collating, revision, and pose difficulties concerning easy access when required. The datasets can be immediately assessed on demand either from a data cloud (charts cloud) or via a desktop program (charts desktop).
Granted there are many on-line resources to find, read and print approach charts - some better than others. However, the Navigraph search functionality allows the right chart to be found, quickly and easily, at the appropriate time. In my opinion, this promotes Navigraph over others programs and on-line resources.
The cloud provides an easy to use on-line interface, with an effective search functionality that can be accessed using different platforms, including portable devices such as i-pads and smart phones. To allow speedier future access, charts can be placed in a favourites list or listed in a paper clip (a separate folder) that is linked to your account. The charts cloud does not allow printing or permanent downloading of a chart and charts are only available when on-line. Access to the data sets ceases after the annual subscription has expired.
LEFT: Screen capture of charts cloud showing list of available charts for Hobart, Tasmania, Australia. The chart can be viewed full screen and can be enlarged as required. Note this screen capture is of a very reduced quality (click image to enlarge).
The speed at which charts cloud database can be accessed relates to the Internet connection being used; however, for the most part the server Navigraph uses provides consistent access that should be suitable for most users, with the exception of those that use dial-up.
The charts desktop is a program supplied by Navigraph (free of charge), which resides on your computer and allows charts to be downloaded for access when off-line. This has the obvious benefit of faster access times if the Internet connection is less than optimal.
LEFT: Navigraph Charts 4 desktop opening screen.
The program has the capability to list charts as favourites for easy and fast access, in addition to having a highly responsive search engine. Unlike the charts cloud, the charts desktop allows access to any chart that has been downloaded after the annual subscription has expired; however, after the subscription has expired the charts cannot be updated. Another benefit in using the program is that charts can be printed.
Navigraph regularly updates the database with additional charts and changes to prexisiting charts. The program advises you of an update when you mouse over the chart name. The program will then allow you to maintain the existing chart or download and replace the chart with the newer version. Updates are usually half a dozen times a year
Is it a Worthwhile Investment ?
Whether Navigraph chart data is of benefit to you will depend upon how many different airports you fly from and to, how often you fly, and how much money you are prepared to shell out for the convenience and ease of accessed chart information. Certainly, it is far easier to maintain a collection of charts electronically than store several binders of paper!
A subscription (using the charts cloud or desktop program) is currently 47.92 Euro excluding VAT. This price allows unlimited access to all charts, and includes the ability to view all instructional videos, which have been professionally produced and run each for approximately 8 minutes duration. Short of a subscription, individual charts and videos can be purchased separately for a once off fee. In contrast to purchasing the Jeppesen electronic charts from Jeppesen or an ongoing seller, this fee is reasonable.
I elected to not write an in-depth review of Navigraph and their products as the Navigraph interface and their products are constantly being upgraded. A review may soon be out-of-date! This review has dealt primarily with the airport charts and has not examined in details the en-route charts or training videos that come packaged with a charts cloud subscription.
Navigraph’s website is very comprehensive and includes several images of their charts that depict the high quality of their product, along with examples of the various programs and how they operate.
Whilst the charts are not 100% identical to Jeppesen real-world counterparts (various information has been merged and interpolated), the detailed datasets, consistent high quality, and ease of searching and accessibility, make the administrative aspect of virtual flying more enjoyable.
The content in this post is not meant to directly promote or endorse Navigraph. To trial this software, I purchased a subscription to the charts cloud and charts desktop. To date, I have been very pleased with the quality of the Navigraph charts and will probably continue to supplement my real-world paper charts with information from this source.
To read more about Navigraph and their products, or to read their active support forum, navigate to Navigraph.com
Note that Navigraph no longer support he original Jeppesen chart format. Rather they have opted to change to the LIDO format prepared by Lufthansa Systems. LIDO charts are being increasingly used in Europe and are being implemented by airlines worldwide. Although similar in many respects, LIDO is not exactly identical to Jeppesen - there are good and bad points concerning their layout. Real world flight crews echo my sentiment.
The FMC database that Navigraph uses is still Jeppesen based.
Furthermore, Navigraph has improved their software and Charts 4 is now obsolete. Charts 5 is the latest software (08 June 2015).
A review of the LIDO format and how it differs from the Jeppesen format will be made in due course. In the meantime, manuals explaining the LIDO format can be downloaded from the training and documents section of this website, or use the SEARCH FUNCTION: search LIDO CHARTS.