When I enrolled as a flight student in the summer of 1991, my newly-assigned flight instructor handed me a small, gray-zippered bag filled with items that now seem like archaeological artifacts. There was a thick and heavy textbook, albeit one with glossy pages and full-color photos to illustrate things like piston engine parts. There was a clear plastic plotter that looked like a souped-up version of my high school geometry class protractor. There was an odd and, at the time, utterly inscrutable circular slide rule that was pretentiously and improbably known as the “E6B Flight Computer.” There were crisp new copies of the sectional and terminal area charts for my home airspace. And there was a little rectangular book of pristine green pages that sported a sturdy black cover and bright gold lettering proclaiming itself to be a Pilot Logbook.
The advent of the Internet, portable electronics devices, and the app-for-everything age has rendered pretty much everything in that once-treasured gray bag obsolete. I quickly and enthusiastically moved from textbooks to eBooks, and I eagerly embraced the convenience of online flight planning and digital charts – especially after they began to include the magic blue dot denoting geo-referenced positioning.
But whither the paper logbook? Whether you are just starting out as a pilot in training or are a longtime pilot contemplating the convenience of electronic record keeping, there are a number of factors to consider. Let’s take a look.
We’ll start with the proverbial fine print of the legalities. A review of 14 CFR section 61.51, Pilot Logbooks, shows that FAA regulations focus on what the pilot must “document and record,” either to meet the requirements for a certificate, rating, or flight review, or to meet the regulatory requirements for flight experience. The logbook entries portion (14 CFR section 61.51(b)) lists the specific information to be recorded for this purpose.
With respect to how, though, the regulations say only that the pilot must document and record information “in a manner acceptable to the Administrator.” Since there is no statement or regulation that deems electronic documents and records unacceptable for this purpose, it is perfectly legal to maintain the required information in almost any format you choose. Though most pilots do use standardized formats for both paper and electronic logbooks, you are free to use almost anything – a spiral notebook, an Excel spreadsheet, or whatever else you choose as your preferred means of documenting required flight time.
That’s the easy part. For many, the vexing question is how to handle endorsements. The suggested wording for endorsements is in Appendix 1 of Advisory Circular (AC) 61-65F, Certification: Pilots and Flight and Ground Instructors, which also specifies that the endorsement should be legible and include such things as the instructor’s signature and instructor certificate number and expiration date along with the date of signature. My paper logbooks are full of instructor endorsements and signatures, and over the years I have put pen to paper to make and sign endorsements in many a pilot’s paper logbook. I have not yet sought to add an instructor’s endorsement to my own electronic logbook (more on that shortly), nor have I been asked to provide a signed endorsement in another pilot’s electronic logbook. I know that day is coming, though, so I did some research on how the agency views this topic.
The go-to document is AC 120-78, Acceptance and Use of Electronic Signatures, Electronic Recordkeeping Systems, and Electronic Manuals. AC 120-78 provides guidance on the acceptance and use of electronic signatures to satisfy certain operational and maintenance requirements. It specifies that the term “electronic signature” refers to either electronic signatures or digital signatures, with the specific electronic signature used contingent on the end user’s preference and the system application. An electronic signature may take any of the following forms:
- A digital signature
- A digitized image of a paper signature
- A typed notation
- An electronic code
- Any other unique form of individual identification that can be used as a means of authenticating a record, record entry, or document
While this article focuses on pilot use of electronic logbooks, let me note that the material in AC 120-78 is just as applicable to maintenance records. Whether for pilots or for planes, the FAA’s main concerns with respect to electronic signatures are accuracy, security, “non-repudiation,” and traceability. An electronic signature must be accurate, and it should be provided in a way that makes it difficult for anyone to duplicate or change it. It should prevent the person signing from denying that he or she affixed a signature to a specific record, record entry, or document, and it should provide “positive traceability” to the individual who signed a record, record entry, or any other document.
Early electronic logbooks may have lacked some or all of the necessary capability, but a quick review of several more recent logbook apps shows that most now have the means to capture an appropriate electronic signature. A precise description of ways and means is beyond the scope of this article, so suffice it to say that you should carefully review (and follow) the particulars for the specific logbook app you are using.
Apart from the ability to capture and maintain any necessary electronic signatures, there are several characteristics to evaluate in the course of selecting an electronic logbook app. Because data entry can require a significant investment of your time, it is worth the effort to review and find the best electronic logbook app for your specific needs before you even think about the first entry. Here are a few of the elements to consider.
Functionality: Electronic logbook apps today offer everything from basic spreadsheet-style recording to highly customizable capability. Logging for personal purposes might drive a simpler selection. If you are just starting out in aviation, and especially if you intend to pursue a professional flying career, you will probably want to select a more sophisticated electronic logbook app. In addition to the ability to capture and record electronic endorsements and signatures, you will want an app that allows you to easily enter and sort the data you need to document. Having many times painfully picked my way through row after row of paper entries to pull the data needed for a particular Form 8710 Application for Airman Certificate or Rating, I can tell you that almost any electronic sorting functionality beats the manual method that a paper logbook condemns you to by default. Still, some apps sort better than others.
Backup: You will definitely want to ensure that your precious logbook data is thoroughly backed up. Control freak that I am, I use several methods. First, I continue to keep a paper logbook, both for backup and for sentimental purposes (more on that below). Second, I make use of my electronic logbook app’s cloud storage features. Third, I keep yet another full copy of my logbook data in my own cloud storage account. Overkill? Perhaps. But in view of how long it took me to accumulate those hours in the first place and to convert the paper entries to an electronic format later on, I am quite happy to have multiple backups in place.
Security: Most electronic logbook apps allow you to set a password for added security on your account. It’s not a bad idea to protect this important information, so be sure your app has the capability and then make use of it.
Portability: Does the app allow you to import and export data without the documentary equivalent of aerobatic maneuvering? Most electronic logbook apps enable use of “CSV” (comma spaced values) and/or Microsoft Excel formats as a means of importing or exporting existing electronic data. Don’t even think about using an electronic logbook that does not allow you to export your data into one of these formats. That said, please don’t assume that having a CSV or MS Excel file from one electronic logbook makes it easy to import that data into another electronic logbook app later on. I speak from experience: At the time of this writing, I am just starting the painful task of trying to import the CSV data from one electronic logbook app to another.
The practical benefits of an electronic logbook are obvious. Especially if stored in the cloud with syncing capability, the data from your electronic logbook is securely backed up and accessible to you almost anytime or anywhere. As I mentioned already, an enormous benefit is the ability to sort your logbook data and generate virtually any kind of report for insurance or other purposes. Need to know how many hours you have in a specific tail number? Check. Number of approaches in IMC? Check. Remind me when my next flight review, medical, or IPC is due? Check. You’re all set.
The catch is that unless you were fortunate enough to have started your flying days with an electronic logbook, you somehow have to convert all those pen-and-paper entries into a digital format before you can enjoy the benefits of electronic record-keeping. I know it can be overwhelming. When I first made the switch, I spent time every night for several weeks painstakingly digitizing about 15 years’ worth of logbook entries. Tedious it was, but the benefits are well worth the cost – and it was often fun to take a trip down memory lane by reliving some of the flights immortalized by logbook data entries.
There are various ways to proceed if you aren’t up for doing it all yourself. You can hire a service to do it for you. From what I’ve determined, it is not cheap (somewhere around $200 for 500 entries), but your time may be valuable enough to make it worthwhile. Another option is to total the existing entries in your paper logbook and make one large summary entry to get your electronic records going. I am seriously considering a variation on this method to transfer my current electronic logbook data to the new app. While the summary entry method will not allow you to sort with the level of detail you might want, this problem will dissipate over time as your electronic logbook entries grow. Also remember that for insurance and most other reporting purposes, you rarely need to go back more than 12 months anyway.
Even an acknowledged techno-geek like me has to admit that there is something special about paper logbooks. A pilot’s paper logbook has an unmistakable look and feel, and I always found great satisfaction as well in the visible accumulation of entries. The length and style of some “remarks” entries can also provide Proustian involuntary memory triggers that let you relive aspects of a particularly good (or bad) flight. However convenient they are, digital entries in an electronic logbook aren’t quite the same – which is why I chose to continue making pen-and-ink entries in a paper logbook along with every electronic entry to my cloud-based logbook.
That said, the growing multimedia capability of apps – including electronic logbooks – can make these documents far more colorful and memorable than even the most carefully written remarks section in a paper logbook. Some offer the ability to add pictures or short videos, and even to export data to something like a Google Earth map. Sentimentality and documentary value are clearly in the eye of the beholder and, however much I like some of my historical paper entries, I look forward to experimenting with some of the ways that new logbook technologies will enable the storage of all the new flying memories I intend to make.
If you have particular tricks or techniques you’d like to share in connection with electronic logbooks, multimedia or otherwise, let us know. We’ll share in the next issue’s Forum as well as on our Facebook and Twitter (@FAASafetyBrief) feeds. Happy logging! (FAA Safety Briefing – MayJun 2016)