Dogfight

Veteran airline captain and GA legend Barry Schiff enters the paper versus electronic chart debate with Senior Editor Dave Hirschman.

November 1, 2013

Getting perspective

You can’t see that on a screen

By Barry Schiff

When I accepted Dave Hirschman’s challenge to defend paper charts in a debate against digital charts, I knew that I would be pitching him a softball. The economics and convenience of digital charts make it difficult—but not impossible—to argue against them.

Paper VFR charts obviously are best for spreading on the floor to gain a perspective of a planned cross-country flight. Yes, you can squish and expand a chart on your iPad, but detail and perspective are lost. The beauty of paper charts is that they don’t break when dropped or fail when you spill something on them. They don’t fade to black or get hung up for inexplicable reasons. I shiver just thinking about a tablet failure when in the clouds and about to begin an unfamiliar instrument approach. This is why airline pilots using them are required to have backups.

A paper chart doesn’t create glare in sunlight, doesn’t need batteries, is easier to use in turbulence, and often has a larger “screen.” It also cannot change function or switch programs by inadvertently touching something on its face. A paper chart is infinitely more reliable than anything electronic. (Notice that Hirschman prints approach plates before departing on an IFR flight. If I’m not mistaken, he prints them on paper.)

Another problem with electronic charts is that downloading revisions makes it difficult to detect changes made on commonly used approach charts. Nor can you easily compare charts that seem identical but are not (such as the Yankee and Zulu approaches to San Carlos, California). Also, you can’t use an iPad to swat flies. Well, I suppose you could, but it might be an expensive swat. Nor can it be used as a sun shield or an improvised instrument hood, as can a paper chart. The good thing about a failed iPad is that you can glue mileage scales along its edges and use it to measure distances and draw lines on a paper chart.

Tablets can be heavy to hold for long or even short periods, and mounting them in small cockpits is challenging. A chart can be conveniently tucked anywhere. I like writing and making notes on paper charts. You should have seen Hirschman’s face when I wrote on the face of his iPad with a black Sharpie. It wasn’t pretty.

Every pilot should have a Plan B, and “B” means “back to basics,” which to me means having paper charts in the cockpit.

Someday, though, none of this will matter. Paper charts eventually will be unavailable, another step off the cliff of excessive technological reliance—and I will miss them.

Visit the author’s website (www.barryschiff.com)

Paper is passé

Take a memo (electronically)

By Dave Hirschman

In case you haven’t seen the memo, the era of navigating with paper charts is over. Sure, aeronautical charts are astonishingly accurate and beautifully drawn wonders of cartography. The hand-painted silk maps they replaced are even more sublime, and a few treasured examples adorn my office wall. But in actual airplanes, electronic charts are far more useful, and they’re getting better and cheaper at a rapid rate. A single tablet computer today can easily store every VFR chart and IFR procedure for the entire country, and digital subscriptions are painless to keep current. Add an ADS-B receiver and tablet computers get even more miraculous with free weather, traffic, pireps, and synthetic vision.

Like other aviators of my generation, I learned to fly cross-country with a thumb held to my position on a VFR sectional. That was an interesting and perhaps character-building exercise, but cockpit chart-reading and folding skills are as useless today as typewriter ribbon. Open any aviation app and the blue dot shows your position (as well as heading, altitude, and groundspeed) with updates coming 10 times a second. I’m a pretty decent map reader, but not that good. Also, digital charts are one of those rare anomalies in aviation in which prices are actually falling, and dramatically so. A paper subscription for VFR and IFR charts used to cost in excess of $1,200 a year. Flight bags full of heavy approach plates meant job security for chiropractors, and countless trees paid the price. The same information is available in electronic form for $100 or less per year, weighs nothing, and never gets lost in the mail.

No technology is perfect, and tablet computers can stop working when they get too hot, or too cold, or run out of power. But paper charts are no panacea. They get ripped or smudged, lost, attract spilled coffee, and float away from open-cockpit airplanes. (I lost a New York sectional from a Waco somewhere over Saratoga Springs, and an Atlanta terminal chart near Stone Mountain.)

Today, tablet computers are our EFBs; handheld and panel-mount avionics contain their own moving maps and navigation databases; and we can print approach plates at just about any FBO for our destination airports, alternate airports, and any number of others. We can even get them in large print if desired. Paper charts had a good run, and they will live on as colorful keepsakes, conversation pieces, and gift wrapping. If Captain James Cook, the greatest cartographer and explorer of them all, were with us today, he’d carry an iPad.

Email dave.hirschman@aopa.org