Sectional charts
8 min read

If you want to win a bar bet among your pilot friends, ask them to show you the FAR that requires you to have charts in your general aviation airplane.

After some fumbling around on the FAA site on the web, one pilot will probably declare the rule is FAR 91.503 which says, “The pilot in command of an airplane shall ensure that the following flying equipment and aeronautical charts and data, in current and appropriate form, are accessible for each flight at the pilot station.”

Seems crystal clear, right? But before you pay off ask your friend to read the title of the FAR subpart that contains rule 91.503. It’s Subpart F, and it says right at the top this part applies to large (more than 12,500 pounds max takeoff weight) and turbine-powered airplanes. Your Bonanza, or Skyhawk, or any other airplane most of us consider to be in the GA category, are not governed by FAR 91 Subpart F. Ask him to pay up.

Sectional charts

You must have these on every flight, right?

So why, for all of our flying lives, have we been told that charts are required? And most pilots will say that it’s a rule violation to have outdated charts in the cockpit. Probably because having current charts used to make total sense, even though the rules don’t specifically require any type of chart—current or otherwise—to be onboard a GA airplane.

In reality the FAA was clairvoyant when writing FAR part 91, the rules that govern private flying. The rule that would have until not long ago required you to have charts onboard is FAR 91.103, the preflight rule.

The opening line of FAR 91.103 says “Each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with ALL INFORMATION (emphasis mine) concerning that flight.”

That’s an impossible rule to follow completely because how can anybody know what all information is? But such a rule would certainly require the pilot to be familiar with information contained on aeronautical charts.

But FAR 91.103 doesn’t use the word chart, as rule 91.503 does for pilots of large airplanes. So what’s required when we fly GA airplanes is to be familiar with the information contained on a chart, not necessarily the chart itself. And what has changed is that we can now get all the necessary data that is presented on a paper chart by other means, especially via electronic storage and display.

For many of us, that necessary navigation and other essential data is stored in the airplane avionics system. And for any pilot the data is available on portable consumer electronics such as an iPad. Those electronic data are as accurate and complete as any printed chart, and are almost certainly more current because it’s quicker and easier and cheaper to update an electronic database than to get ahold of a paper chart.

Why this is important is because a paper chart has been merely the best method available to present the information we need to safely navigate. The paper chart evolved and improved over the years as chart makers devised better ways to highlight most critical information, color code some data to make it more prominent, and in other ways allow pilots to absorb and interpret the data printed on the chart.

But printing and paper have limitations that electronic displays don’t. A high resolution flat panel display can show information in any format and in any color. And best of all, the electronic display can be animated so we see our position and track rather than having to imagine it, or track it with our finger on a paper chart.

When electronic displays first began to find their way into the cockpit, they showed little more than TV pictures of a paper chart. That was a good start. Looking at the familiar paper chart format on an electronic display made it easier to transition, and made it simple for avionics and software creators to present.

I remember when the first displays that actually showed the position of your airplane moving over an instrument approach chart appeared. It was like magic. There you were seeing your airplane move across the chart with no need to visualize your actual position. It was right there.

But before too long it became obvious to many that looking at an electronic version of a paper approach chart was actually distracting. The paper chart format is cluttered because it must show all details while the optimized electronic moving map display need only present what is pertinent for your actual situation.

For example, the avionics in the King Air 350i I fly can window the multifunction display to show both a replica of the paper approach chart and an optimized electronic moving map display at the same time. Sounds good and useful, right?

But how about this? You’re flying an instrument approach to Runway 18. The normal MFD moving map display with all of the guidance and, thanks to TAWS and synthetic vision, showing all nearby terrain and obstructions, shows you moving ahead as though your were looking out the windshield. This is called “track up” display and is the most logical way to look at a map of any kind. Remember when we were taught to hold the sectional chart on our lap folded so the desired course pointed forward? It helps make sense of the situation.

With the approach chart for the Runway 18 displayed, the little airplane symbol will be moving down, toward the bottom of the screen, because charts by nature are displayed “north up.” On one display you can see your progress on the approach with the airplane symbol moving forward on the electronic moving map while right beside it the airplane symbol moves down over the printed chart format. Seeing your airplane moving in opposite directions on the same display is one heck of a way to confuse your situational awareness. So the little airplane moving over the traditional chart picture is really a distraction compared to the electronic moving map.

Pilot in G1000 cockpit

Do you need charts if you have a G1000?

The image of the traditional chart is also very cluttered because it must contain a mountain of data that is no longer necessary for the pilot to read and then enter into the avionics. For example, any approved navigation system retrieves the course, nav frequency and other essential data from its stored database so there is no need to read it from a chart. In fact, the pilot can’t manually set a course for most approaches even if he for some reason wanted to.

It’s the same for altitude restrictions during a procedure. The electronic display looks up the pertinent altitudes and presents them, usually in a color that indicates their status during the procedure. A paper chart, or image of a paper chart, can’t do that, and usually contains many altitudes that don’t apply to the actual procedure you are flying.

Electronic en route charts are equally decluttered. Gone from the normal view are the bearings and frequencies and altitudes of the paper chart. The nav system guides you from point to point along the route so why do we need the magnetic course between those points? We don’t. And the system is capable enough of showing critical altitudes if you’re too low.

Avionics makers and nav data suppliers such as ForeFlight are making steady progress in enhancing the way we can see essential data. The picture becomes more clear and easier to absorb with each improvement.

I’ve flown with a number of pilots who call up the electronic display of a traditional chart “to check the accuracy of the data” that is automatically loaded from the nav system database. I point out that the data used to make the traditional chart is exactly the same data stored in the nav system. It all comes from the same suppliers so “checking” one against the other is like comparing two copies of the same dictionary for spelling accuracy.

The one electronic data presentation hurdle remaining is display of minimum visibility and minimum descent altitude requirements on approach charts. Minimums are complex because they can be different for categories of airplanes as defined by approach speed, availability of a local altimeter setting, whether it’s night or day, and other factors. So far I haven’t flown with an electronic nav display that shows the approach minimums details without looking at the electronic version of the printed chart. And that’s the only reason I still even look at the image of the printed approach chart, to find the minimums. But I’m confident a better way to electronically present minimums requirements is coming in the near future.

I still see student pilots drawing course lines on paper sectional charts, and fumbling with an E6B computer to calculate a magnetic heading to fly on their cross country. And I wonder why.

I know I won’t live long enough to see the sectional chart disappear from primary training because aviation—particularly the CFIs and examiner corps—resist change with such vigor. But I also know that as soon as the student pilot escapes the clutches of the CFI they can toss the paper charts and fly in the real world where essential data is electronically presented in an infinitely more useful and ultimately safer way.

Thanks, FAA, for leaving the word chart out of the FARs that govern GA flying. Progress can continue without an unnecessary and cumbersome rules change. Now if more of us could just win that bar bet and convince pilots that electronic data meets the rules and it’s the data, not the chart, we need for safe flying.

Mac McClellan
31 replies
  1. Roca
    Roca says:

    Good topic. Personally I carry one expired chart for my local area (marked “for training use only”) as a backup to my electronics. I don’t carry paper backups when I go cross country. Has anyone been charged/cited/gotten in trouble for not having charts? What about at a checkride?

    • Richard Frazier
      Richard Frazier says:

      If you read AC 91-78, it clearly states that you are not required to carry paper charts if using an EFB that is current. It is suggested to carry some sort of backup, but not required.
      As for checkrides, my students are not required to have charts with them, or do their cross country planning old school, and can do their planning all on ForeFlight. I do encourage them to have a chart on them just in case, but have not had an examiner recently simulate an iPad failure.

      • Randy Coller
        Randy Coller says:

        Richard… “If you read AC 91-78, it clearly states that you are not required to carry paper charts if using an EFB that is current.” Remember, an “AC” is advisory, not regulatory.

      • JC
        JC says:

        I used to use paper charts, as did we all. Then I went with the bound IFR/VFR charts, while better, was till a hassle. When I found ForeFlight, I killed all the paper charts. In order to ensure I have everything I need, the aircraft has all the IFR charts, displayed on the panel. However, I like back ups, so I have a primary iPad, a secondary iPad, and an iPhone each with ForeFlight. I also keep them plugged into ships power, but also have two massive battery packs that will sustain all of the iPad/phones and they are in-line with ships power. Sort of belt and suspenders. Never had a failure, but with enough back-ups, I should be able to find a runway to land on, long before I run everything to zero power.

        • Warren Webb Jr
          Warren Webb Jr says:

          Primary iPad, secondary iPad, iPhone, Foreflight service, two massive battery packs? That’s a good example of why I haven’t changed from my sectional.

  2. Stephen Phoenix
    Stephen Phoenix says:

    I would like to see all references to magnetic anything disappear as well as the compass being thrown out as a weight savings.

      Mac MCCLELLAN says:

      Hi Stephen,
      I couldn’t agree more. For centuries navigators adjusted for magnetic variation to find the desired result of true north. Now we all get around using GPS which is based on a global grid oriented to true north. But the aviation system clings to magnetic orientation so our navigation systems must contain a data base of magnetic variation predictions and apply that to the true north output of the GPS solution so what we see aligns with runway headings and VOR radials.
      Isn’t something backwards here? We degrade the precision of GPS solutions to make them fit into a magnetic nav world that is hopelessly beyond usefulness.
      Mac Mc

      • Tom DeMarino
        Tom DeMarino says:

        New chart more expensive than a new database? You obviously have someone else paying the Garmin bill. Want to to be sure of no failures so let’s have another $700 in backups. There’s a good way to make flying affordable. I don’t recall ever seeing a blue screen of death on a chart. By spending an inordinate amount of time on my third world life support system learning overly complex software written a nonpilot I can marginally improve my situational awareness, I don’t think my $9 chart is a bad way to go.

  3. Gary Reynolds
    Gary Reynolds says:

    Don’t blame the CFIs with being stuck on charts and the E6b. It’s the FAA and the DPEs that demand a flight plan drawn on paper and a planning form filled out using the E6b for the calculations.

    • Charles Mahon
      Charles Mahon says:

      A refreshing trend is emerging – applicants are permitted to use an EFB solution and demonstrate the logic from TC, WCA, MV, MC, and finally to CH. Describing the corrections needed to fly your heading device or wet compass is what’s important. ASI’s, DPE’S & CFI’s are all in agreement

      • Warren Webb Jr
        Warren Webb Jr says:

        Agree. The software of the automated equipment is phenomenal at saving time, but the pilot needs to be able to recognize glitches.

    • Richard frazier
      Richard frazier says:

      The DPE’s in my area are on board with all planning done electronically and do not require anything done old school or paper charts be brought to the checkride, though I do encourage my students to bring paper chart just in case

  4. Richard Wyeroski
    Richard Wyeroski says:

    It is the DPE that has to determine if an applicant is safe. Most DPEs accept the IPad and ForeFlight for planning. However they will shut off the IPad and expect the applicant to pull out a paper chart and continue flying.

    Dead Reckonoing planned out on paper using a mechanical E6B is expected of CFI initial applicants by most FSDOs

    After all if the electronics fail what is the alternative………TVMDC !

  5. John
    John says:

    As an aerial survey pilot for many years I like and need charts and maps with lots of detail. The ability in Foreflight and Garmin Pilot to import and overlay user created GIS files and public domain GIS files of the boundaries of federal and state lands, national wetland inventory maps and so much more has been a windfall.

      Mac MCCLELLAN says:

      Hi Richard,
      I find it to be amazing that the people who worry most about electronic failures–including the DPE corps–fly behind a single engine. Do you really think that collection of steel and aluminum parts banging back and forth is more reliable than an iPad? And that the consequences of an iPad or other electronic map/navigation failure are the same as the forced landing that follows a loss of power from the one engine?
      Mac Mc

      • Jeff
        Jeff says:

        I fly behind a 1959 172, O-300 and never had a engine failure, yet. However after sitting in traffic I did have both my tablet and glare shield mounted GPS fail from heat. Tablet shut down and GPS froze. Was given clearance a few minutes later and told to turn to take off and turn to heading______. If I didn’t have the old wet compass what would I have done?
        As a note after being in the air for about 10 minutes I was able to get both going again. I have heard more stories of iPads going black than engine failures.

  6. flitetym
    flitetym says:

    “… FAR part 91, the rules that govern private flying.”

    A slight correction is in order, here. CFR 91 is an “underlying” reg that governs ALL flying.

    As example, CFR 121 or 135 operations may be adjusted (more or less restrictive) by the issuance of Ops Specs. Even 91 ops can be adjusted by “EDWA” — exemptions, deviations, waivers and authorizations — when such activities are formally presented to the government (in this case, the FAA).

    And there’s good legal reason for this. Our Constitution provides a means by which every law or regulation is subject to being challenged by the citizen. “EDWA” simply provides a streamlined process to the challenge.

  7. Greg
    Greg says:

    I agree the world of electronics has come a long way and must admit, I don’t refer to my paper charts even though they are still carried in my airplane. I carry them as we all know, electronics can and will fail. Weak batteries or A/C charging system failure. I think in the interest of safety, there is nothing wrong with ensuring student pilots are proficient with being able to read and navigate with paper. After all when they have finished with their instructor and are out on their own, if they suffer some type of electronics failure, would we be remiss in not making sure they know and have a means of navigation for completing a safe flight. Even though paper charts are rapidly going the way of the dinosaur, I think for safety, a last ditch in the event of electronics failure, we should at least still teach the basics. It’s almost a certainty once obtaining their PPL, they will move on to moving maps/GPS and the latest gadgets. But in the event of failure, they should be able to pickup, read and navigate by paper chart. Making a well rounded and safe pilot is the goal. Having a basic understanding of how a paper chart works is not necessarily a bad thing in the age of electronics. Just an opinion.

    • Greg
      Greg says:

      I agree with you Greg.

      Something I consider important is missing from the conversation is the reference to the Aeronautical Chart Bulletins in the Chart Supplement. The information printed there is needed to be added to the sectionals, terminal area charts, and helicopter charts to maintain the chart currency. Foreflight, Garmin Pilot, Wing X Pro, and others do not update their charts until the new charts are printed. So “technically” those EFBs are not current. I would venture to say, most paper pilots don’t update their paper charts either. And yes, I’m one of those nerds who does update his paper charts each 56 days. Blame it on the Air Force training flying low levels at 400 AGL and not wanting to hit things except my bombs on the target. Oh, for those of you wanting to know what you are missing by not checking the ACB, they are changes to obstructions, airports, NAVAIDS, airspace, special use airspace, military training routes, and miscellaneous. It is what I teach my students to help them be a little bit more in line with Part 91.103.

    • Bob
      Bob says:

      I like Mac’s points & I agree with Greg. If we don’t get too bogged down with data overload, with excessive heads down time, the increased situational (position, traffic, weather) awareness afforded by our electronic, track up displays is great! I must add, though, when I circled the U.S. in my PA28 with both paper & EFB, I wasn’t fazed by my iPad overheating & being out of commission for 15 minutes. Meantime, I flew the remaining 40nm, using good old-fashion logic & paper, which comes from having an understanding of navigation basics. In any case, it behooves the pilot to ensure the logic of electronically-produced flight plans, based on basic navigation principles. My former airline used to have us plot our positions on oceanic flight, despite our moving map ND.

  8. Ken Chapline
    Ken Chapline says:

    Hello All,
    Here’s the bottom line on charts. None of us has seen a E6B, an MFD nor an iPad used as an effective sun visor…!!

    Ken Chapline, Capt. American (ret.)

  9. John Gaither
    John Gaither says:

    For the future the question is whether flight examiners test the competency of students with their iPads or whatever EFB they choose to carry. When iPad solutions started coming out, I tried several and settled on Foreflight. I quickly concluded that it was more important to become proficient in one tool than to chase the tool that had the next “gee whiz” feature. Having grown into Foreflight as it has expanded, I have kept reasonably current with its features, but I realize that a new private pilot is as likely to be as bewildered as I was when I first saw an aeronautical chart. So we know that almost every student pilot is going to switch to an EFB as soon as they get out of their initial training. There are several good ones out there. I think it important that students come out of training with competence in one of them. This doubly applies for instrument students.

  10. Nick
    Nick says:

    I’m a CFI from “back in the day when…but I teach both…Navigation using iPad and paper chart. Otherwise, when will my studs learn either one?

  11. Mandy Gomez
    Mandy Gomez says:

    There are no requirements in the FAR’s other than for commercial operations to carry charts onboard, however, should you get in trouble of some sort and the use of a sectional chart would have avoided the issue, you can rest assure the Feds are going to violate you for reckless flying or fail to due diligence on preflight action. Other than a local flight, I always carry current charts with me. I’m just saying!!

  12. John Opalko
    John Opalko says:

    I like to use paper charts for planning. I find it a lot easier to get a feeling for where the flight is going, what the terrain is, and what are the routing options by spreading out a chart on the kitchen table than by scrolling and panning back and forth on a computer screen.
    And, sometimes I just like to sit down with a paper chart and read it, imagining flights and finding new places to go. Yeah, I know: I’m weird.

  13. Vidura Stich
    Vidura Stich says:

    Thanks Mac, great article and I appreciate the way you presented the information. As a newly minted Private Pilot who is currently flying for fun with my family and friends (whilst I work towards the other 3 “main” ratings), I am always looking to be as safe as possible so I like to carry back-up’s just in case. This includes paper charts and a paper AFD, along with a battery backup system to keep my iPad, Stratus, etc…fully functional.

    I do wonder how things will progress, and being one for nostalgia…I did really appreciate learning how navigate with a paper chart via dead reckoning and pilotage…with checkpoints and all that comes that type of planning. The best part of that for me was when I took my checkride and was debriefing with the DPE…he said that a common mistake he sees people make in small planes like a Cessna is that they don’t do checkpoint level calculations for longer cross-country flights and so are not always aware of wind and timing changes that could result in a dry fuel tank. I took that to heart.

    Thanks again, I look forward to more articles from you.

    Be well, take care.

      Mac MCCLELLAN says:

      Hi Vidura,
      Congratulations on your new Private certificate. You sound like a well trained and careful pilot.
      What you are describing is called “situational awareness” by the safety community. That means do you know where you are, where you’re going, where the nearby airports are, what’s the weather, what’s may clearance, and all of the other “what’s going on right now” questions.
      The great news is that current electronics give us constant and precise situational awareness all of the time. Any decent GPS navigator–panel mounted or hand held–has answers to all of the questions we once had to learn by constantly monitoring a sectional, clock and other inputs. The navigator knows exactly how long you have been flying, where the destination is, wind speed and direction, how long it will take to get there, and exactly where every available diversion airport is.
      Can the GPS quit? Of course. But if it does you know all of the answers up to the second it failed. So you are exactly in the same position as the perfect pilot with his thumb correctly poised on the paper chart.
      I raced sailboats for years with nothing but a wet compass and knotmeter because, well, I see racing as a sport. Figuring out my “situation” on the race course was part of the fun. But I didn’t do that in airplanes because to me flying is not a sport. Flying is using everything possible to complete every trip with maximum safety and utility, and the good news is that modern electronics makes flying safer and more useful with each passing year.
      Mac Mc

  14. Mark
    Mark says:

    If you are departing from an airport that is underneath Special Use Airspace, a Military Training Route or a Military Operation Area and you do not have paper charts (Sectional/IFR enroute chart) for the area, where do you find information about the floor of the airspace you may be entering???


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