The Great Debate: Digital vs Paper |

The Great Debate: Digital vs Paper

digital charts versus paper chartsThe issue of digital charts versus paper charts seems so simple. But as the conversation develops, it quickly expands to mean a lot more than just a visible sheet of material. Here's how that goes.

"My iPad is the latest technology. It works great and is so much easier to work with than a floppy piece of paper that I'm contantly having to fold." (So far, so good.) "And it does my flight planning for me. It tells me exactly how far I need to go, what heading, how long it will take, and how much fuel I'll burn." This is the point where the argument has gone off-road, onto a tangent. We are no longer comparing paper to glass. We are now comparing software to our own brains.

What Is The Question?

Let's face it. A chart is a chart. It really doesn't matter what it is printed or displayed on. It is a chart. We look at it. If that was all there was to it, the debate would have ended years ago. Paper doesn't run out of batteries, but we can always carry a digital backup. Whichever one is easier to use, that should be your answer.

But the debate seems to always include arguments about flight planning and aviation calculations. Primary students invariably ask why they should learn to calculate headings, time, and distance when they have new tech ready to handle it. An iPad and panel-mounted avionics do these things more quickly and with less room for error. It is a compelling argument. We don't navigate with sextants anymore because we have advanced to better tools.

At this point, we really aren't discussing the pros and cons of paper and glass. We are debating whether or not a pilot should be required to understand some simple math problems, and learn to arrive at answers by pushing a few E6B buttons or turning a metal wheel. 

The discussion frequently continues further into the weeds with navigation. Following a magenta line on an iPad or a GPS navigator gets lumped into the paper versus glass argument. Clearly, if a pilot only uses paper there will be no GPS-generated course line. So, suggesting that glass improves navigational capability is probably a true statement. But the proper question should ask whether that alone is sufficient. Is it is adequate for a student pilot to navigate only by following a magenta line? It is arguable. With enough redundancy, perhaps it is. 

Here is the simple "which is better" question, broken down into its three real-world components.

1. paper charts versus digital charts

2. manual flight planning versus software-aided flight planning

3. pilotage and dead reckoning versus following a GPS-generated course line

It is now time to investigate what the FAA says about the matter.

What the FAA Says

1. Notwithstanding the benefits of digital charts, the Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge (FAA-H-8083-25B) is largely silent on the question of paper charts and digital charts. Likewise, the Private Pilot ACS makes no reference to digital charts. It seems reasonable that the FAA has no preference regarding the media on which charts are presented. They only care that they are current, available, and useable. (The FAA provides all charts, for free, in digital format via their Aeronav portal.)

2. Flight planning IS something about which the FAA has much to say. The Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge goes into great detail regarding manual flight planning and makes no mention of software options using websites or tablet apps. The FAA doesn't exclude electronic flight planning, but at least at this time, they don't advocate it. All examples shown use plotters, E6B devices, and require an understanding of fundamental flight planning concepts. Looking at the Private Pilot ACS, the issues are discussed in Task I.

Task I, Cross-country Flight Planning, specifically states that the applicant must know how to calculate time, climb and descent rates, course, distance, heading, true airspeed, and groundspeed, along with estimated time of arrival to include conversion to universal coordinated time (UTC). Since the ACS explicitely lists this as required knowledge, a prudent practical test candidate would not arrive at a checkride with these items calculated by software.

Airman Certification Standards

3. In-flight navigation is another topic that the FAA expressly addresses. From the current (FAA-H-8083-25B) Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge: "In all cases, VFR pilots should never rely solely on one system of navigation. GPS navigation must be integrated with other forms of electronic navigation, as well as pilotage and dead reckoning." 

Task VI in the ACS is dedicated to Pilotage and Dead Reckoning. By definition, this is eyes-outside, stopwatch and compass navigation. There is no magenta line in Pilotage and Dead Reckoning. This doesn't suggest that GPS may not be used during a Private Pilot practical test. It does, however, mean that a private pilot candidate must be able to successfully navigate without benefit of a GPS. Not for positional awareness, not for course line determination, not for anything.

Pilotage and Dead Reckoning


The answer(s) to the debate appear clear at this point.

● Paper versus Glass? It's your choice. Charts are charts.

● Manual flight planning or software flight planning? Both have their places. But the availability of software flight planning tools does not relieve the Private Pilot from knowing how to do it by hand.

● GPS navigation? Yes. The FAA does want Private Pilots to be proficient in understanding and using GPS-based tools. But make no mistake - the FAA clearly requires pilots to be skilled in old-fashioned pilotage and dead reckoning. If a Private Pilot checkride is in your future, make sure to master it. 


Russ Still

About the Author

Russ Still is a career flight instructor and ATP. He has written numerous articles for technology and aviation publications and authored “The Unbroken Chain” in 2001 (ISBN-10: 189652284X). Russ is an 8-time Master CFI and founded the Gold Seal Aviation Training Network in 2003. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science from the University of Florida.