Flight Planning By Hand: Becoming Obsolete, Or Already There?

I have to admit that ever since I was a flight student beginning ten years ago, actually planning the flight was an understood, extremely lengthy necessity.  Depending on the length of your trip, you had to sit there with your whiz wheel and plot out exactly what time you would cross your checkpoint, which was illustrated by a highlighted line on your necessary-but-obnoxiously large sectional chart.  (Not my personal chart here.)    You have to (by law) carry your sectionals with you in the aircraft, and if you’re flying IFR, you have to have approach plates (pieces of paper with the approach information on them) for every approach listed at a particular airport.  This gets particularly cumbersome for pilots because each airport could have as many as three or four approaches per runway. (Remember–if you have a runway with a compass heading of 36 (due north), you also have a runway 18 (due south).  This means that if you have four approaches for 36, you also must have four approaches for 18–eight pieces of paper for the same piece of asphalt!  Now imagine flying into an airport with three or four runways (or, in fact, six or eight runways)–you’ll have to carry upwards of thirty pages of approaches just to shoot an approach there.

They make binders full of these approach plates, which are printed on the kind of uber-thin paper that Bibles are printed on, but still you must carry them with you in the aircraft wherever you go.  Think of it:  If you have to carry fifteen pounds worth of approach plates (not uncommon), that’s fifteen pounds of fuel you couldn’t, and while two gallons of fuel probably won’t make the difference between making a trip and not making it, it’s still nearly always better to have more fuel than not.

About twenty years ago, a FedEx saw the need to reduce to reduce the rediculous amount of paper in the cockpit, and had the technology to do it.  It began with a laptop, but from the loins of that idea came nearly every pilot’s best friend:  The Electronic Flight Bag (EFB).  This is basically a handheld computer (which is not always in a bag, despite the title) that has all of these approach plates and sectionals stored on a hard drive (typically as PDF files), and can quickly call up any approach plate or sectional (or section of a sectional) to accurately give you only the information you’ll need to safely fly your route and approach.  Many other companies picked up on the idea, of course, and now there are EFBs of every option and price range.  Most often nowadays, they are linked to satellites and provide a GPS location of your aircraft over the ground (in the form of a moving map), as well as real-time precipitation overlays which show your proximity to  any weather in the area–a real help to pilots, as a good percentage of accidents are, in fact, weather-related.  Many times also, they give you the option of filing or cancelling a flight plan online while you’re still in the air–even just ten years ago, you had to do it by phone from the ground.

So.  As a student, you’re taught to do everything by hand–starting from the absolute basics.  I believe this is still the smartest way to teach people to fly initially, particularly since the new student (I can tell you from experience) needs every understanding of how to keep from getting lost or in hot water up there.  It’s easy to do–if you are not sure of your position over the ground, it is easy to wander into a military munitions test zone, for example, without knowing it.  All of a sudden you’re face-to-face with a pair of F-16s, and have no idea why.  They have this form that basically looks like a flow chart of information, on which you would fill in the blanks with the information needed, and make calculations down to the minute  about when you will cross your checkpoint.  Very time consuming, but worth the lessons. 

So the basics are the way to start off.  But I posed the question to all of my pilot friends on Facebook:  With the advent of these EFBs, is it even worth it for the average General Aviation (GA) pilot to plan trips on paper anymore?  The answers I got summarily sided with EFBs.  One of my buddies who flies 757s even told me flat out, “I haven’t planned a personal trip on paper since I left (college).”

Another factor regarding flight planning ease and organization has been linked to price.  Garmin is one of the foremost authorities on GPS and avionics technology, and their EFBs range in price from around $2500 on up, depending on options.  Also, in most cases, you have to have a subscription to update all of these chart files that ranges from two hundred to five hundred dollars a year, depending on the provider.

But finally, things are getting easier (and cheaper) for GA pilots.  Technology is accelerating the ease of teaching (and further, the accessibility) of GA to many people who previously had not considered it to be on their radar (no pun intended).  One product in particular perked my ears up the second I saw it:  The Apple iPad.  I would never have considered buying this oversized iPod, this laptop-that-isn’t-a-laptop, except for one feature that it has–a huge, beautiful, bright, HD screen, and the ability to display and navigate pictures quickly, concisely, and with great versatility.  Obviously in the context of this article, it’s plain to see what (to me) is the iPad’s most obvious purpose.

The iPad-as-EFB will be realized soon enough, as Apps are being made available for pilots, by pilots at lightning speed.  These apps supplement all of the other programs that have forced an aviation cross-country trip to be more fun than work–websites like www.navmonster.com and www.fltplan.com let you put in your cross-country planned airports, and they literally give you nearly every detail you’ll need to make the trip.  They link you directly to current weather reports, special advisories, pilot reports (PIREPS)…these websites will even take the current winds and calculate your airspeed and times for you.  They’ve effectively done for pilots what the TI-83 calculator did for trigonometry.  And for a “mere” nine hundred bucks for the unit, twenty bucks for the app, and people making sectional PDFs available online (which you have access to in the air) for free, the Apple iPad is now top on my list of discount-GA-Pilot EFB choices.

I think it’s clear that paper-planning trips is a thing of the past (again, unless you’re a student–you need to have those skills to fall back in if your electronics quit on you to safely fly).  And of course, we flyers need to have safeguards in place against complacency, as complacency causes accidents.  But do you feel these new technologies will promote complacency, or will they actually make people more aware, more alert pilots because they have more information in a far more organized way at their fingertips?

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    • Robin Laws
    • June 1st, 2010

    As a quick response to your final questions:

    I did some research regarding new technology and pilots. Basically, as long as pilots have the basics–AND constant updating and training, I found that new technology is FANTASTIC! (or so they say) On the other hand, if you get Billy Bob Joe who goes out and flies and NEVER looks outside the cockpit-as he is too busy looking at his GPS-that is where you run into trouble accidents. From what I researched, people who had received an IFR rating WITH additional training regarding G-1000 (or GPS, etc) did better than those who did not have any additional classes, etc. (yeah i’m not surprised either)

    So-I think the technology is great-but the trouble is updating all us “old farts” and keeping everyone “current” with the new technology. I think that if you are going to use some of this technology, there should be some type of check out flight or something…but i’m not sure how that would all be implimented large scale….?

  1. I agree–things are really left to the individual GA pilots to kind of “pass the candle” when it comes to a training session on this newer stuff…but more commonly, you’ll fork it over as a student to pay an extra twenty bucks an hour to fly the newer trainer. We almost need a piston version of FlightSafety or something. Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, we already have a very cheap way to implement the training–we could set up a curriculum and train off of Flight Sim X or something. Thanks for commenting, Robin!

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