Navy enlists handhelds

Navy pilots and their crews face an avalanche of forms and checklists that

must be completed before, during and after every flight, even the most routine

training missions.

But now the aviators at Naval Air Station, North Island, Calif., are

starting to use handheld computers to lighten the paper load, thanks to

the ingenuity of a lieutenant and petty officer who developed a timesaving

software application.

"The Navy is very big on paper checklists," said William Ragatz, an

aviation weapons systems operator at NASNI who developed the application,

which runs on 3Com Corp.'s Palm handheld computers. "Work that took anywhere

from 15 to 30 minutes before the flight — and had to be done manually twice — is now down to five minutes, tops, with the Palm."

The new, Palm-based software application is used to enter information

into a daily flight-tracking program called SHARP, or Sierra Hotel Aviation

Readiness Program system, said Lt. Christopher Williamson, SHARP project

leader. The pilots and aircraft support personnel at NASNI use SHARP to

record everything from flight times to maintenance records to the crewmen's

names. SHARP stores the data and produces reports for the base and Command

Naval Air Pacific.

Using Microsoft Corp.'s Visual Basic, Williamson developed SHARP two

years ago to track operations of NASNI's air fleet, which includes aircraft

from the most advanced strike fighters to unmanned vehicles. SHARP replaced

a paper-based recordkeeping system that was very time-consuming and inefficient.

"There were not enough bodies to do my job so I made up a system to do it

for me," Williamson said. "It tracks everybody and everything on a daily

basis, and the bean counters love it because it gives them a granular look

at all flight data."

Williamson said Ragatz approached him a few months ago with the suggestion

to put a SHARP interface on a Palm computer to eliminate some of the paperwork

required on the flight line. After Williamson helped Ragatz program the

basic gateway to SHARP, Ragatz did the rest on his own.

"He learned the code and wrote it," Williamson said. "He worked out

all the logistics and smoothed the [process] out, and that's something a

lot of captains and commanders have been trying to do for years."

The new Palm-based interface to SHARP lets pilots easily input information

during a flight and during downtimes such as refueling.

The information the pilots enter into the handheld computers is then

transferred into SHARP using the Palm's hotsync feature, which works by

placing the device in a cradle connected to the base network. Data is also

transferred in the other direction, allowing the aircrew to load data from

SHARP into their handhelds, cutting the time it takes to complete their

post-flight reports.

"They can hotsync before takeoff and get about half of their information

uploaded, like takeoff time, landing time and the crew names," Ragatz said.

"And if they're scheduled to take off at noon but get off a little late,

they just make a simple edit and they're done. It's five minutes' worth

of work — if that — on the Palm."

NASNI will begin a beta test later this month to ensure data is not

corrupted during transmissions, but that should prove to be a formality

for the smoothly operating system, Ragatz said.

"In order to get funding, we need to do the beta test," he said.

In addition to the SHARP application, Ragatz is creating a Palm-based

version of student pilot performance charts and pocket checklists for aircraft.

"If you're an instructor and have a student with you on a [training]

event, they can perform the exercise and be told what they did well and

what needs improvement," Ragatz said. "Then the instructor can hotsync to

the database and search by a student's name to see their progress."

Currently, 10 PalmPilots are used in the field, but the goal is to get

a handheld device to each of the base's 40 pilots and 20 aircrew members

as soon as possible, Ragatz said.

When that happens, it will complete a task that has made the two men

experts in an area not normally associated with their ranks.

"Petty Officer Ragatz and I are the subject-matter experts on readiness

and the software development of readiness tools," Williamson said. "For

me, as a lieutenant, it's kudos, but for a petty officer, it's unheard of."

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