Top 10 apps for the aircraft builder
“There’s an app for that.” This overused cliché becomes more and more apropos every day. Even for the aircraft builder, we now have a virtual toolbox in our pocket that has become indispensable. We have reached the point in technology where it is now the norm for an aircraft manufacturer to publish maintenance manuals, parts manuals, and all other documentation, for that matter, in a digital format. If you’ve grown up on paper, the transition to digital can sometimes be difficult, but the rewards are well worth the effort.
#1 The PDF Reader App:(Figure: 1) The Rotax manuals, for example, consists of literally thousands of pages spanning more than a dozen different manuals. The ability to use a search function on a 500-page manual can really speed up the process of locating the information that you’re looking for. In our shop, we have a library of aircraft maintenance manuals accumulated over the last 40 years.
This easily encompasses four entire bookshelves from the floor to the ceiling. One of the distinguishing characteristics of our library is that, except for a small portion of the books, it now mostly takes up space and collects dust. The ability to research up-to-date and current information on each aircraft and engine makes the use of paper manuals virtually obsolete. The tedious job of doing manual revisions is long gone. Two minutes of downloading the most current version of the PDF for the applicable application brings everything up-to-date. And having it at your fingertips while you’re away from the shop, or stuck up underneath the instrument panel of an airplane, or at the far end of the ramp will boost your productivity to an entirely new level.
#2 Sport Aviation Magazine App:(Figure: 2) Although we can’t wait for our big glossy Sport Aviation magazine to show up every month, we often don’t have time, right then and there, to read through each of the articles. For example, if you travel like we do on a fairly regular basis, there’s nothing better than having your copy of Sport Aviation magazine ready to read while you’re sitting in the terminal waiting for your aircraft to arrive. You can even download all of the past issues and easily have enough reading material for that 10-hour flight that you’re so looking forward to.
#3 Camera App:(Figure: 3) Another one of the most frequently used apps which we find invaluable is, of course, the camera app. The ability to take high quality pictures or video has completely change the way that our shop operates. We are able to work virtually with a customer hundreds of miles away keeping them up-to-date with progress reports and visual aids to help them understand what’s happening with their aircraft. Creating a visual diary through pictures of your aircraft build not only provides a great memento but also serves the dual purpose of providing the builder’s log to substantiate the 51% rule when applying for your airworthiness certificate on your amateur built aircraft.
If you’re planning on restoring an old aircraft, the camera is your best friend. Taking pictures along the way as you disassemble the aircraft will be of great assistance when it comes time to put it back together. This is especially true with some of the older aircraft where manuals or drawings are sparse. We would never consider an engine change without first creating a visual record of the entire engine compartment. If you’ve ever put an engine back into an airplane, but it was two years later, you’ll be amazed at the usefulness of this simple tool. We can also attest to this fact: you will never have enough pictures of the right spot. The quality of many phone cameras now days is so great that we use the camera as an inspection aid during annual inspection. You can’t get your head up into an inspection panel access hole but you can fit your camera. In the video camera mode, with the LED light turned on, it’s amazing what you can see on the inside of the wing or fuselage. The clarity in the high definition video is far superior to the many borescopes that we possess. You can take the video back to your desktop and scrutinize even the smallest of details.
#4 Google:(Figure: 4) In addition to Google’s amazing search engine, we are often surprised by the number of people who aren’t aware of its ability to conduct any mathematical calculation as well as convert practically any unit of measure with a single touch of a button. If the phone is simply laying on the desk just say “convert 1320 pounds to kilograms.” Google will respond in a voice command “1320 pounds equals 598.742 kilograms.” Simultaneously displaying the answer on the screen. Give it a try, you’ll be amazed at its capabilities. We even use this function to tally up the totals in our logbooks. Just read the column of numbers “1.4+1.1+.7+1.4+.9. . . etc.” And Google will spit out the correct answer. If you suffer from “fat finger” syndrome, you will find this method of completing mathematical calculations on cell phone a godsend. Of course you’re going to also want to download a calculator app as well. And there are literally hundreds of them to choose from. Although you may find one calculator app more to your liking, the rating system usually is a good way of vetting the really poor ones. Most of the apps provide a simple calculator with big buttons when the phone is oriented vertically and then turns into a scientific calculator with smaller buttons when rotated horizontally.
#5 Flashlight app: (Figure: 5) Of course, if you got a cell phone, you probably already have a flashlight app. It’s one of those simple features that you simply can’t live without, no matter what you do. But for aircraft stuff, it is even more important. We are constantly working in areas on an aircraft where we need that extra little bit of light. Many of the apps now allow for the use of the very bright LEDs that are used in conjunction with the cameras as a very powerful flashlight. In addition, many apps allow you to select the screen as an alternate lighting source that can be use at a variety of brightness levels as well as color settings. We often will use the colored light in the cockpit at night very effectively. Using the camera LEDs provide a very bright light to work with, but will drain the battery much quicker. Whereas the screen light can be used for a much longer period of time such as in the cockpit environment.
#6 Vendor apps. More and more vendors are putting a lot of effort into their websites to make them mobile friendly. Websites like Aircraft Spruce (Figure: 6) are probably among the favorites with aircraft builders. Using the Aircraft Spruce website with a mobile device is nearly as easy as working off of your desktop. Not only ordering, but tracking your purchases and shipping. It is becoming more and more common that vendors create mobile device apps specifically to improve the shopping experience. One of our favorite suppliers is McMaster Carr. (Figure: 7) They have a mobile device specific app which is so seamless and friendly that we will often just pull out the phone to order parts rather than walk back to the office to place an order. We have the 3,952-page catalog from McMaster Carr. We’ve never cracked the cover.
#7 Magnifier app: (Figure: 8) The magnifier app is basically utilizing the camera technology to accomplish its mission. However, I’m surprised at how often I pop this one up to utilize. It has a couple of features that come in particularly handy in comparison to the regular camera feature. The app allows you to turn the LED light on during the operation whereas the camera typically utilizes the LED light as a flash. This allows you to use the magnifier as a lighted magnifying glass, but still has the feature of allowing you to capture images as you would with the camera feature. In the zoomed in mode, you will be surprise with the detail that you can get that you could never see with the naked eye. Just like carrying a magnifying glass around with you.
#8 Smart Tools app: This app contains a suite of different types of tools including rulers, angle measuring devices, bubble levels, tape measures, sound meters, compass, lights, mirrors, etc. The most useful of the tools in this app is the visual protractor. (Figure: 9) It utilizes the camera overlay on a plumb bob. You can use the camera to align with a specific surface and even capture the relationship with the built-in camera feature directly on the screen.
#9 Machinist apps: There are literally dozens of extremely useful applications for the average builder up through the professional machinist. One of the favorites among the students in our Light Sport Repairman Maintenance classes is the Thread Pitch app. (Figure: 10) If you’re new to identifying hardware, you can simply hold a screw or bolt up against the screen and match it to the bolt to identify the thread pitch. There are a multitude of screens that allow you to not only check standard and metric threads, but tapered pipe threads as well. There are several dozen hardware apps to go along with this one. Providing a myriad of information on both SAE as well as metric hardware. The drill and tap chart app also comes in handy on a regular basis.
#10 Vibration apps: (Figure: 11) Some of the most intriguing new apps, which we’ve recently been playing with, are a selection of different vibration analysis apps. The accelerometers built into the new phones are highly sensitive and extremely accurate. They are capable of measuring acceleration in all 3 axis. We can watch the vibration in real time as well as capture data over a given period of time and analyze the data later. There are several graphical output formats depending on which app you’re using. We have been conducting tests to see if we can utilize the vibration app mounted in a selfie stick holder attached to the Rotax 912 during carb synchronization to supplement and validate proper carburetor synchronization. These apps promised to have very wide application in the aviation world. It will be interesting to see what other creative applications we can use the vibration analysis for.
Well, we’ve covered a pretty broad spectrum of different applications that we use in the aviation environment. The amazing thing is that we’re just scratching the surface of what exists today. With this kind of powerhouse in our pocket, our productivity skyrockets. We encourage you to check out some of these very useful tools and see if you don’t agree with our assessment. If we’ve come this far in the recent few years, since smart phones have been developed, imagine what we will see in the future.