top of page

Paperless Cockpit

A few years ago in 2014, the worlds largest aviation map printing company, Jeppesen, announced that they would stop printing paper maps for VFR flights. The reason was most private pilots and many commercial pilots and airlines had started using navigation applications and moving maps on their iPads. The demand for paper maps had plummeted since 2010. The data on paper maps is out of date before the map is printed, while the latest information and corrections can be instantly uploaded on computers and iPads, this cannot be so for paper maps.


Now that you have eliminated all paper in the cockpit, can you use the equipment and fly the aircraft along your planned route, safely and accurately?

I have noticed that many pilots who did not ever fly outside their comfort zones and the local area now have GPS units but still do not fly outside their local area and comfort zones!

I address two different issues in this essay. One is the pilot’s ability and willingness to use new equipment to reduce workload and two, using electronic equipment to enhance and expand the pilot’s flying skills.

Let’s look at the pilot’s ability and willingness to use new equipment. The urge to keep up with the Jones’s is normal; one goes out and buys the latest gadgets to use in one’s pride and joy. The nature of the new “no-moving-parts” and “not-serviceable-by-user” type of gadgets means we cannot “break open” the box into its component bits and re-assemble them to learn how they work and what each component does. The ability to learn by playing with toys pressing their buttons and touching their screens is not something taught at most flying schools for various reasons:-

  • school aircraft are usually fitted with basic conventional instruments (some may not even be in working order) or the aircraft are always in the air and not available to sit in on the ground to power up and familiarise with instruments;

  • the instructors don’t have the time nor the inclination and sometimes not even the knowledge to show how the gadgets work to their students and they don’t get paid for “ground-time”.

Thus the responsibility falls on the pilot to buy his gadget and learn to use it by himself or with help from other like-minded pilots.

How can you enhance and expand your ability to use new equipment and your flying skills, unless you have access to the equipment and a mentor or instructor to show you how to use it; first on the ground and then in flight.

Some pilots are more willing and eager than others to experiment and twiddle with the gadget. However, this generally happens in the cockpit while flying, thus distracting the pilot from carrying out a tidy and safe flight, reducing look out, reducing time on ground planning alternate routes in case of bad weather. Other pilots have a mindset that “electronic gadgets are for the younger pilots and I will fly with my reliable old map”. They literally fly with an old, out of date map!

Equipment & Ability

However, as with most things in life, we all use hi-tech of at least one kind in our modern life; the remote control on the television set is a sophisticated tool that only an eight-year-old child can operate efficiently, accurately and promptly; older pilots simply give up on that equipment! Okay, leave the remote control to the tiny tots and RTFM for your GPS or iPad to enhance your flight planning and reduce the workload in flight.

The equipment in a modern sports aircraft or microlight can be a “glass cockpit” with large screens and no moving parts. Are you able to set the screens and use the menu buttons. Are you familliar with the terms ‘soft menu’ and ‘hard menu’. There are so many training videos on youtube about the various makes of glass cockpits that it makes every thing easy to understand before you even sit in the cockpit.

Using a GPS, we can tap in “go to EGXX” without much planning aforethought and then fly a route which takes us on a round about track avoiding controlled airspace as the warnings flash up on the screen; because we have not learned to use the radio or are too nervous to call on radio to ask for clearance through controlled airspace, because we have never been shown how to!

Most NPPL pilots don’t bother to get proficient enough to pass their RT tests because the RT license is not compulsory. However, the aircraft available to them are capable of going around the world at a comfortable pace. This is a failure of the flight instruction system which has not kept pace with changing airspace and improving technology.

Familiarity & Preparation

Paper maps depict 3D space on a flat sheet; GPS screens are as flat as paper and the 3D airspace can still be hard to understand as it flashes up on the screen. The pilot must understand and be able to decide whether he can go under, over or through the airspace by changing altitude or go around to avoid it completely, thus making the route longer, more expensive, more fatiguing.

Using a GPS simply to avoid flying into controlled airspace is not a bad thing if one just wants to stay clear, but it is such a waste of good technology and money! The GPS should be used to make the flight planning process and the flying easier, cheaper, faster and safer!

A pilot who does not prepare his route, check the weather, plan alternates and diversions will not be a safe pilot whether he uses paper maps or a good GPS or iPad with navigation systems.

Spend time at home becoming thoroughly familiar with the GPS unit. Do you know how the Global Positioning System works? Here is the official US Government website with information on how the constellation of satellites operate. Essentially, the 24 satellites orbiting our planet send out precise time signals to the gadget which then calculates its position and speed of movement. The navigational applications overlay this information on the map on your device.

First of all check whether the map and airspace data is up to date and current. I have seen many a hi-spec gps unit that has never ever been updated since the day they were purchased! And yes, I have had to throw 10-year-old maps and flight guides out of the cockpit when doing check flights with pilots who do fly often. The advantage of using tablets and smart phones with navigation applications is that they are updated almost daily and certainly as soon as there is an official promulgation of airspace change.

NotAm issues are also automatically downloaded on these smart mobile devices so the Pilot has no excuse to use the information for planning every flight.

Check the way gps displays are set. Understand the map layout and airspace overlays. GPS systems have a large variety of settings; check that the settings are such that all relevant airspace is shown. Generally in the UK, for flying VFR ensure that they show all airspace below 5000 feet just as a ¼ mill chart does. This helps to de-clutter the screen. Of-course, don’t forget to change the altitude level for airspace if you are going to fly above this level.

You can zoom in for more detail on the screen and when you do so, are you aware of the scale of the display? Set one of the windows to show you the scale of the map so you know at a glance the distance from a mountain or town or airspace boundary that you may not wish to bust.

Set the projected or predicated track of the aircraft (the arrow line from the nose of the aircraft symbol) to a distance of 3 miles or 3 minutes and remember whether you have set the distance or time so when required you can make a call or respond to a query and give an ETA. If the predicated track is set too long, it can flag up warnings too early and can be distracting enough for you to change your track unnecessarily, thus making the flight track longer.

When a warning is flagged up on the screen, please pay attention to what it says. Don’t just acknowledge it and clear if off the screen. If you get too many warnings too often, it is distracting just as too much “street furniture” on small town roads; too many spurious warnings can lead the human brain to ignore it! You should be able to plan your flight near and around London at a level not above 2300 feet to stay clear of the Class Alpha airspace whi