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In this digital age, should you still carry paper charts?


Has the time come to ditch the sectionals? Since obtaining FAA approval in the early 2000’s, electronic flight bags have continued to evolve and gain in popularity. Does this mean that paper charts have become antiquated relics, or do they still serve a purpose in your cockpit?

Let’s take a look at both the pros and cons of paper charts and electronic flight bags, then you decide the verdict.

Pros of Paper Charts

Before we jump headfirst onto the digital bandwagon, let’s first consider the merits of traditional paper charts.

Reliable Backup

Are you familiar with the phrase, “Two is one; one is none.”? Even if you use digital charts as your primaries, there is a lot of comfort and peace of mind in having a real, tangible physical chart in your cockpit.

Imagine holding both your electronic flight bag and your paper charts at waist height, then dropping them on the tarmac. Just the thought makes you cringe, doesn’t it? There’s something to be said for your paper charts which, unlike their digital counterparts, won’t stop working or disappear when they hit the ground.

No Batteries Required

All you need to be able to use your paper charts are the charts themselves – and maybe a light and reading glasses. Digital devices however, will always need a power source to function.

If the thought of arriving at the airfield only to realize that your digital device won’t power up sounds like a nightmare, carrying a set of paper charts is a low-maintenance backup plan.

Provide Big Picture for Flight Planning

During pre-flight planning, it helps to see the big picture. While digital charts can be zoomed out, the total map area is still only as big as your device’s screen. This may make it harder to get a broad-scale view.

Laying paper sectionals out on a table can provide a better perspective in the planning phase.

Cons of Paper Charts

If digital charts are the wave of the future, there must be a reason, right? What is it about paper charts that you and your fellow pilots gripe about?

Size and Weight

One electronic device is substantially less bulky and heavy than toting around a case filled with paper sectionals, terminal area charts (TACs), VFR planning charts and other required files.

Not Backlit

What color light do you use to illuminate a paper chart at night? Red light may preserve your night vision, but it can also make those magenta colors practically disappear.

Digital charts are designed to be viewed in both day and night without the need for a flashlight since the adjustable backlight function allows you to optimize screen brightness.

Need for Multiple Charts

There is no magical pinch and zoom option on a paper chart. To switch between sectionals and TACs, you have to physically pull out and juggle multiple paper charts.

As a side note, you also have the dubious pleasure of practicing your origami skills when you continually refold your sectionals throughout the flight.

Logistics of Updating Charts

Are you sick and tired of remembering to R&R your physical charts every 56 days when they expire?

Wouldn’t it be great if those charts could simply be updated with the press of a button? This is one of the benefits of digital charts.

Additional Skill Requirements

Yes, you know how to navigate using dead reckoning and pilotage. Does that mean that you want to perform those mental gymnastics with each flight? Probably not, but with paper charts, you don’t have a choice.

Pros of Electronic Flight Bags

What is so exciting about the high-tech electronic flight bag (EFB) option? These sophisticated apps and dedicated devices expand upon the capabilities of basic paper charts by offering next-level features.

Ease and Speed of Updating

With EFBs, gone are the days of ordering, waiting for, and remembering to replace expiring paper charts. All charts, airport information and other important data are easily updated within the app or digital software.

Weather Data Overlay Feature

Save precious time by quickly overlaying weather data directly on your flight map.


Digital charts contain a wealth of data and they give users the ability to select which information to view at any given time. Pilots can set up their system to their personal preferences and add or remove chart layers as desired.

Integrated Charts

Rather than switching between a sectional and a terminal area chart as you would with paper versions, the digital chart of an EFB seamlessly transitions between the two with the pinch and zoom feature.

Flying from Tampa to New York? Your sectionals will naturally load in correct sequence without any distracting paper chart swapping maneuvers required.

Less Bulk + More Charts

Whatever type of EFB you choose, it will inevitably allow you to carry more charts while still taking up less space and weight than a full set of paper charts.

Tablet accessories like kneeboards and mounts give you the freedom to position your EFB device wherever is best for you.

Moving Map Display

Pair your EFB with a portable GPS/ADS-B device and you will be able to view your aircraft’s real-time position overlaid on your chart.

Computational Capabilities

ETEs, ETAs, and other moving calculations can be done real-time and without as great a potential for human error.

Imagine being able to pull up the vector and distance to the nearest airport at the touch of the button during an emergency landing scenario.

Cons of Electronic Flight Bags

This new tech sounds like magic, but if making the switch to digital was the clear-cut right answer, you would have jettisoned your paper charts years ago. That said, let’s have some real talk about the downsides of digital.

Technical Issues

Any electronic device has the potential to fail. Rely solely on a single EFB with no paper backup, and you run the risk of technical issues rendering your charts ineffective. Remember – Murphy’s Law applies to airplanes as well.

Battery Requirements

Unlike paper charts that can languish in your flight bag between uses, an EFB device must be properly charged to work. Leave your battery or charger at home, and your device is useless.

Screen Size

A tablet-sized screen may be large enough in-flight, but during planning for a long flight, you may find that you prefer to be able to view your route on larger, printed sectionals.

Potential for Losing Skillsets

Math teachers bemoan the day they must teach their class how to use a calculator rather than arriving at the solution using manual equations. The fear is that students will become completely reliant on the technology and unable to function without it.

The same concern applies to EFBs. You may wish to ask yourself how secure you are in your navigation skills. If your EFB were to stop functioning, are you able to quickly pull out backup paper charts and continue without a problem, or would you be dangerously rusty?

What’s Your Verdict?

Only you can decide what navigational aids belong in your cockpit. Having grown up with sectionals, it may just boil down to mental comfort.  Carrying paper charts as a backup for now will simply feel like the right thing to do, while using an EFB for the actual flight.

This hybrid approach provides the maximum safety and redundancy of time-honored traditions while exploring and benefiting from new technologies.

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