By Jason Depew of AviationBull.com
I believe that a professional pilot should keep a logbook. For me it’s as fundamental as a doctor keeping patient records or having a court recorder. I reviewed the top electronic logbook apps on the market in hopes of finding the perfect one. Though there are some great products out there, a few features remain tough to find.
One of the missing pieces in the logbook industry right now is converting military flight logs into a civilian format. I wrote a guide to doing this yourself, but that only lets you know how you’re going to spend untold hours doing line-by-line data entry. One of the dreams we’ve probably all had is an app that scans in your military flight records and does all the work of converting them to a usable eLogbook format. There’s already software to do Optical Character Recognition (OCR,) but having access to that software is just the start. Actually making an app that can do this successfully is an extremely difficult task. It’s so difficult in fact that I want to put it in perspective:
For my senior project as a computer engineering student at the USAF Academy I worked on a team to scratch-build 7 autonomous robots that communicated wirelessly and worked together to navigate a maze and solve a puzzle. If you’re not a computer person, that probably sounds difficult. If you are a computer person, that should sound near impossible. I’ve thought many times during over the years about creating a system that uses OCR to convert PDFs of military flight records into an eLogbook. I didn’t even try though…because it’s such a difficult task that I figured it was beyond me.
In that light, I was floored to learn that MilKEEP, a brand-new company with just three people, has solved this exact problem. Yes, you can now scan in all your flight records and get a usable eLobgook. They even do the conversion from military-style logging (Primary, Secondary, Other, etc.) to civilian and airline-style logging (PIC, SIC, etc.) This is truly the product that we’ve all been wishing for all these years.
How about some background?
Chris is a C-17 pilot. When he decided to prepare for a possible transition to the airlines he started the arduous process of converting his military flight records to a civilian logbook. His lovely wife, Kim, even helped. She’d read the military data out loud and he’d type it in to his spreadsheet. As you’d expect, they frequently wondered why there wasn’t a better way of doing this.
After asking themselves that question for the umpteenth time, they realized that they were staring directly at a big opportunity. We’ve all thought about using OCR to scan in flight records, but Chris and Kim actually decided to make it happen. They hired a programmer, planned out their system, and got to work.
They didn’t just want a logbook converter though. Chris noticed that the USAF wastes a lot of time on painful administrative…uh…stuff. The Air Force requires each individual to track flights and do paperwork for air medals, track flights and stats for performance reports, and has people collate all those stats for unit purposes. There is no excuse to make human beings do these things when we have handheld computers more powerful that what we used to send people to the Moon. Chris and Kim envision MilKEEP as something useful for military pilots and units. They’re working to make a system that automatically generates the paperwork for your air medals. Their system will eventually send you quarterly and annual emails with all your flying stats so that writing your OPR takes five minutes instead of five hours. They want MilKEEP to be capable of providing unit commanders with useful data so that they can stop assigning science projects to lieutenants and captains who should be out flying. (Chris told me that one of his goals is nothing less diabolical than completely eliminating the idea of a Squadron Awards & Decs Shop. I don’t know about you, but that’s an evil masterplan I can support!)
Before we get too excited, I’ll say that many of those features are mere aspirations right now. MilKEEP is a young company tackling a very difficult problem. However, I’ve tested their system and I’m pleased to endorse what they have so far. They gave me a test account and I uploaded several pages of Individual Flight Record Report (IFRR) from ARMS. (Thanks to Matt Swee and Sid Atkins for help with that.) Some of those pages were medium-quality scans, and others were mediocre quality “scans” using an iPhone app that converts pictures to PDFs. MilKEEP’s automated OCR software read them all flawlessly. That’s wonderful and astonishing.
Chris & Kim say that their OCR software is 99% accurate. (They stared trying to use an Adobe product, but didn’t like the result. They’ve switched to much more powerful OCR software called ABBYY.) Although their system is that good, they still put a set of human eyeballs on each scan to verify that it meets their standards. I’m a big fan of that practice.
For $200 they’ll let you upload your entire flight record and give you 30-days to make manual adjustments or additions. I know, you’re a pilot so you’re cheap like me. $200 sounds like a lot at first, but let’s think realistically about this. How many individual flights do you have in your flight record? How many of those can you realistically read and enter into an eLogbook per minute? Probably not more than 5. (Remember, you have to go back and forth to enter the data, then you’ll want to double-check your work. Only then can you begin the process of trying to decide how to translate the Primary/Secondary/Other/IP/EP time into PIC/SIC/Dual Given that the airlines want to see.) You’re looking at many hours doing data entry. What’s your time worth to you? If you’re honest with yourself about these numbers you’ll quickly realize that $200 is a steal.
This is great for someone who has completed his or her military flying, but what about someone who isn’t done yet? Chris & Kim have you covered. They offer one subscription that lets you input your ongoing flights manually and another that lets you snap a picture of a 781 with your phone, upload it, and automatically processes it for you. If that isn’t something you’ve been dreaming of, then there’s something wrong with you.
Reading a 781 isn’t automatic yet. (It may be eventually…their programmer, Zach, is teaching ABBYY that trick as you read this.) In the meantime, Chris & Kim have come up with a brilliant alternative that doubles as a public service. As a military spouse Kim has felt the pain of trying to find/maintain employment while following her husband around the Air Force. This is actually a widespread problem (and not an insignificant factor in the USAF’s ongoing pilot retention crisis.) MilKEEP provides a perfect opportunity for military spouses to do some part-time work no matter where they are in the world. Chris & Kim hire military spouses to manually enter your 781 data into the system. It’s something they can even do home with small children. It gives them steady, flexible employment and provides their family with some extra income. It provides military pilots with a valuable service at a very reasonable price. Win-Win.
Chris & Kim have focused on Air Force flight records because that’s what they know. However, they aspire to cover all of the armed services. That illustrates something I like about their company. The advent of mobile computing and new web-based programming languages (they use Ruby on Rails or RoR) has made it possible to release a product and continue developing and adding features to it while it’s live. MilKEEP has a useful, meaningful product right now, but they’re going to continue adding features as time goes on. Since they’re small right now, they’re also agile. They’re very open to feedback and creative business ideas. This product will continue growing and developing. That’s a great thing for us as customers. Your alternative is something like waiting for the monolithic new version of Windows every few years that takes so long to develop it’s outdated the day it’s released. MilKEEP won’t have that problem.
So, should you pay for MilKEEP right now? Honestly, yes, it’s a good value. Here are some ways you could use it:
1. Pay the $200 and upload whatever flight records you have. If you’re leaving military flying, you’ll be able to do a 1-time export to an eLobgook system and be set. If not, you can still export to an eLogbook and do the ongoing updates on your own. (Remember, this doesn’t just do the data entry for you. It also converts your military-style time into airline-style time.)
2. If you’re looking at a year or more left in the military you could do #1, and then also pay for one of their subscriptions. Every time you fly, you snap a picture of your 781 with your phone, then fire-and-forget the picture into the MilKEEP system. Their top-tier service is only $10/month and it will make your life a lot easier. In the future, these subscriptions will be even more valuable as MilKEEP adds features.
Believe it or not, I’m not making a dime to write this. Matt Swee introduced me to Chris & Kim through TPN. I’m impressed that they took the initiative to tackle a problem that we’ve all been staring at for years, yet done nothing about. I’m even more impressed at how successful their software is. I believe that excellence should be celebrated, and that’s exactly what I see in their product. Given what they’ve accomplished in such a short time, I’m excited to see what they’ll come up with in the future. I’m posting this to make sure you know that MilKEEP has solved a problem you’ve been suffering for years. I believe that your time is worth more than enough to justify taking advantage of their solution. Enjoy!