Teaching Flight Planning: Digital vs. Paper

Among the aviation blogs I follow, John Ewing’s Aviation Mentor is a favorite. He’s a northern California-based former freight pilot who left that business to return to instructing (already you’ve got to admire the guy, right?). His topics are worthwhile reading, the entries invariably well-written and annotated. That alone sets him apart. “A show about nothing” might have been a recipe for success on “Seinfeld”, but it doesn’t carry much water when you’re writing a blog.

Anyway, he recently posted something thought-provoking about the increasing prevalence of digital flight planning tools, some of them so portable and powerful you can hold it in your hand and easily “plan” a flight from anywhere to anywhere with no paper whatsoever. Federal regulations, weather, charts, airport directories, even logbooks are all available on these little devices. And so John asked the question I get from many students: isn’t planning flights on paper passé?

The widespread availability of sophisticated GPS receivers, digitized aviation charts, and internet-based weather information is changing the way student pilots are learning cross-country flight planning. The introduction of new technology and techniques always raises questions: Should student pilots be taught to use paper charts, plotter, pencil, and a slide rule E6B or encouraged to switch entirely to electronic charts, calculators, GPS and computer-based weather briefings?

I’m a big fan of computerized flight planning and use them on a daily basis myself. There’s no doubt that they make what admittedly can be a onerous task faster, more efficient & enjoyable, and in some cases safer. However, when it comes to students learning to fly, there are several problems with not planing cross country flights “by hand”.

First among them is that without doing it by hand, students don’t understand how the computer is coming up with the output it delivers. Students therefore never figure out how to determine whether that information makes sense. It’s incredible to watch pilots — even experienced ones — on dual flights take bad data from a computer as gospel when a critical look at the numbers would reveal that something was wrong. Usually it’s bad input from the pilot — the junk-in/junk-out syndrome that computer programmers have known for years.

One of the most egregious examples of this was an instrument-rated commericial pilot flying what was supposed to be a short cross country blindly follow a course to a place that was more than 4,000 miles away, not realizing he was headed south when his destination was to the north. When the error was pointed out, he truly felt that it was no big deal. I tried to convince him that he had been lost, but he just refused to accept it, and in doing so became one of the few people I was never able to approve for solo privileges at the FBO.

The final check on any data from a computer must always be the pilot-in-command, but unless students have done these computations by hand, they won’t know what they don’t know. There are many advantages to using digital tools to plan cross country flights, but you have to learn to do it long hand first. Otherwise, why not use software to do the weight and balance or any other tasks? Are we aviators or bus drivers?

From a practical standpoint, printed charts can prove superior to computers at times. Trying to figure out complex multi-layered airspace around L.A. or the S.F. bay area when you’re unfamiliar with it is much easier on paper than on a computer screen because printed charts don’t require panning and zooming, nor do they suffer from limited screen resolution.

Computerized tools also fall prey to unintentional programming. For example, digital maps can frequently be “decluttered”. It’s disturbing to watch someone fly happily along without realizing there was airspace in front of them which had been turned off by the declutter function. The purpose of flight training is to teach people to fly, not program a computer.

I do agree that there are places for digital tools like the iPad. Many places, as it turns out. Every try folding a chart in a Pitts? Quite a feat. iPads also make great geo-referenced backups for glass panel aircraft, as they have their own power source, antenna, and don’t require anything from the airplane systems to function. They’re handy if you have to divert into an area your chart doesn’t cover. They save the weight and bulk of large paper collections. I’ve even seen them make flight possible for those who might not otherwise have been able to do it. For example, a student with one arm was able to use an iPad when folding a paper chart would have been impossible in flight.

The list of benefits is long. But I would not train a student pilot without having them do it by hand quite a few times. You’d be surprised at how many people (highly successful ones, even) have a very difficult time with basic math and navigation concepts. Flight planning by hand will help uncover these issues early on.

In my opinion, it would be irresponsible to train a pilot without ensuring they could do the computations by hand before bringing them into the 21st century with the automated tools that most of us now routinely use for our flight planning needs.

  6 comments for “Teaching Flight Planning: Digital vs. Paper

  1. June 7, 2011 at 5:17 pm

    Same goes for any language, be it scientific or not. If you can’t write it out, you probably don’t comprehend the reason it works. I would imagine this is quite important when attempting to arrive on a narrow strip of asphalt that exists hundreds, even thousands of miles away.

  2. June 7, 2011 at 5:17 pm

    Same goes for any language, be it scientific or not. If you can’t write it out, you probably don’t comprehend the reason it works. I would imagine this is quite important when attempting to arrive on a narrow strip of asphalt that exists hundreds, even thousands of miles away.

  3. June 7, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    Ok, now you’re just making me look bad. You said in 50 words what it took me 500 words to convey. (I must be a writer, eh?)

    Now what was that you were saying about langauges… ? 🙂

  4. June 7, 2011 at 7:29 pm

    It is like showing your work in long division and then using a calculator after that.

  5. June 7, 2011 at 8:06 pm

    …if you’re into that whole brevity thing.

  6. Jeff Boatright
    July 5, 2011 at 5:54 pm


    I thoroughly enjoy your website.

    As to the topic at hand, I agree with you that learning in longhand is the way to go. In fact, I’d take what you suggest a step further and ditch the slide rule E6B, which is nothing more than a mechanical version of the 21st century digital black box that spits out an answer without a hint of the underlying concepts.


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