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Are Paper Charts Practical Anymore?


You don't use typewriters anymore. Or rotary telephones. Or cassette tapes. So when it comes to flying, why do pilots still use paper charts?

You're surrounded by technology and information everywhere you go. From the computer you work on to the smart phone in your pocket, there's more computing power within a 10-foot radius of you right now than what it took to put a man on the moon.

But when it comes to navigating your plane, whether you're flying a traditional 6-pack plane or an Electronic Flight Deck, many pilots are skeptical, or downright adamant, that paper is a safer option for nav charts.

So what's the safer, and more practical option, for flying?

Electronic Charts: You Know You Have The Latest Data

One of the best things about electronic flight kits is you know, without a doubt, that you have the most up-to-date charts. And with the rapid pace of chart revisions, especially if you're flying across a multiple states, knowing that you have everything you need with the simple click of a button is very, very nice.

You Can Be More Flexible

This might be even better than chart revisions. Say you're flying from Atlanta, GA to Charlotte, NC. If there's weather along your route that pushes you into Tennessee, or if you need an alternate in Tennessee, you need to make sure you have charts for your diversion.

If you're using paper, you need to track down extra charts, and that's not always easy. But if you're using an electronic flight kit, with just the click of a button, you're downloading all of Tennessee's charts in the matter of a few minutes.

All Of Your Data Is In One Spot

If you're flying with paper, you have enroute charts, approach charts, and if you're in busy airpace, SID and STAR charts. That's a lot of paper to manage. And if you don't have it all handy, you can easily find your self twisted around, digging through your flight bag in the back seat for that chart you forgot.

That's not the case with electronic charts. Everything is contained in one app, and with a few clicks, you're switching between enroute charts and approach charts, and you're even ready for that approach change that ATC might give you when you're 10 miles out from the IAF.

Electronic Charts: You Need To Know How To Use Them

Electronic charts don't do you much good if your head is buried in your app, trying to figure out how to use it. The down side of electronic charts is the massive amount of information you have in front of you. And if you aren't able to navigate your app efficiently, you're doing yourself more harm than good.

If you're going to fly paperless, you need to spend time on the ground understanding your electronic charts, and how to quickly perform all the tasks you need to do in flight.

What If Your Battery Runs Out?

This is one of the most common complaints I hear about electronic charts. When your battery dies, you're out of luck, right?


Not if you're prepared. For us, we carry backup battery power, in the form of this Jackery portable charger (we actually carry 4 per flight). One of these, which you can get for only $23 bucks, stores enough power to charge an iPad from 0% to 100%. So if you've got one in the cockpit, along with a charging cable, your chances of running out of power in-flight are zero.

What If You Break Your Device?

This is another potential problem: what if you drop your device and break the screen? While that wouldn't be good, chances are you're carrying a smart phone in your pocket. And while using a smartphone for your backup charts might not be ideal, it works just fine.

But another thing you should be prepared for is a charging cable failure. Cables are typically the weakest link for any electronic flight kit, and if you don't have a spare, you could be out of luck. Fortunately, you can get extras for less than $10 dollars.


Paper Charts Don't Crash

Now that we've gone over the ups and downs of electronic charts, let's look at the realities of paper charts. And the first point is one you can't deny: paper charts don't crash. There's something to be said about that. But, if you know how to restart your electronic app, it's not that much of a problem.

You Know Where They Are

When it comes to paper charts, you know exactly where they are (hopefully), and you don't have to hunt through any software menus to find them.

But, if your charts are stuffed in your flight bag, and your flight bag is in the back seat (we've been there before), you'll be twisting and turning your body to grab your charts, and opening yourself up to vestibular illusions as you do it.

Are Your Paper Charts Updated?

Who doesn't love chart revisions? When I flew with paper, I knew that chart updates were one of the worst realities of flying. And those updates come every 56 days, with interim updates at the mid-point of that cycle. That's not much fun.


What If You Need To Fly Somewhere You Don't Have Charts For?

This is a real problem with paper charts, especially these days. If you need to fly to another state (or states), you'll probably have a hard time tracking down paper charts. And worst case, you may need to order them and have them shipped. Hopefully you don't need to fly in the next 3-4 days, because you aren't going anywhere until those charts show up in the mail.

What If You Drop Or Lose A Chart?

Here's another problem. What if you lose a chart? You probably won't know until you need it. And worst case, that could be in the airplane. On top of that, I've never met a pilot that carried two sets of paper charts in the plane, which means you don't have a backup plan. At all.

As with any situation, you can always have ATC read an approach chart to you, but nobody really wants the public-shaming associated with a controller describing the approach to you as you scribble it down on your knee pad.

Swayne Martin

What's Your Best Option?

So what's the best and most reliable option for your charts? While paper is still an option, it's not nearly as practical and reliable as electronic charts, especially if you're flying long distances.

Instant chart revisions, access to the entire US airspace system, and easy backup plans are just a few reasons why electronic charts win out.

And while many pilots still might be more comfortable with paper charts for now, we'll keep ours in the storage closet, right next to our typewriter.

Colin Cutler

Colin is a Boldmethod co-founder, pilot and graphic artist. He's been a flight instructor at the University of North Dakota, an airline pilot on the CRJ-200, and has directed development of numerous commercial and military training systems. You can reach him at

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