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We know that there is a lot of math and physics involved in flight and flying a plane in general, but how much math do the pilots themselves actually have to use?
Pilots use math while flying to make calculations during take-off and landing (such as crosswind effects), to stay on course, while tracking fuel consumption, and under some types of navigation. They need to use basic arithmetic, geometry, and trigonometry on a regular basis.
Flying a plane isn’t exactly easy, which is why it takes plenty of training to get to that point. One of the parts of flying that many pilots don’t love is the math that’s involved. In this article, we’ll talk about when pilots need to do math, what they have to do it for, what kind of math, and we’ll touch on if autopilot handles this for them.
At SkyTough, we want to provide our readers with the best content on the web. To do that, we spend time researching all topics that we write about and combine what we find with our own knowledge and the experience of other experts in the field. That way, you get as many points of view as possible and you’ll get the culmination from pilots all over about how they use math.
What Kinds of Math Do Pilots Have To Use?
If you’re like me, then you might not be an expert in all types of math. You certainly don’t want to be sitting up in the cockpit doing differential equations and advanced calculus while trying to enjoy your flight, right? Thankfully, that isn’t the type of math that you’ll need to do as a pilot. Most of it is much easier than that!
When it comes to math, basic arithmetic is about as simple as it gets. This is the math that you learned way back when you were a kid in grade school and includes things like addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. In most cases, this is the only type of math that you might be expected to do in your head or by hand, so make sure you’ve got an idea of how to do it.
Geometry is the next level up when it comes to the types of math you might need to use as a pilot. This is the math that’s all about shapes, spatial relationships, and things like that. This is the stuff that includes areas, volumes, etc. of all the different shapes and objects. This is heavily formulaic, so be sure to either know the formulas or keep an equation sheet with you.
In most cases, trigonometry is about the hardest type of math that you’ll need to use as a pilot. This is the math that involves the relationships between sides and angles of a triangle. Things like sin, cosine, and tangent, for example. That’s trigonometry. As a pilot, you won’t need to be a master of trigonometry, but you’ll need to know how to do the calculations with a calculator or flight computer.
Why Do Pilots Have To Do Math?
Now that you have an idea about the types of math that pilots are expected to be able to do, let’s take a look at why and when you might need to use math as a pilot. It’s not like you’ll be sitting up there doing math from take-off to landing or anything like that. There are just a few different things that you’ll need math for while flying.
Let’s check them out.
During Take-Off and Landing (Including Crosswinds)
If you talk to just about any pilot out there, they’ll say that take-off and landing are the two hardest parts of flying. Especially landing. So these are two of the aspects of any flight that you’ll likely need to actually do some math during.
During take-off, it’s important that the pilot does some quick mental math about the weight of the aircraft, its occupants, and cargo. This might seem obvious, but still important to ensure that the total weight of everything being flown is lower than the amount of life that the airplane can generate. Or else you won’t be able to take off!
During landing, you’ll want to make adjustments to speed, angle, and descent based on runway conditions and crosswinds. This will typically involve some trigonometry of some sort to account for how the wind is hitting the airplane and what you need to do to account for it.
During take-off and landing, a lot of this will be done by the feel of the aircraft and what your instrumentation is telling you. So you might not be sitting there with a paper and pencil, but you'll be figuring out the math behind everything anyways, even if you don't realize it!
Tracking Fuel Consumption
Let’s just state the obvious here — you need fuel to fly. So it’s vital that, as a pilot, you closely monitor the fuel usage so you know if you can make it to the final destination. Weather, air resistance, changes in the flight path, fuel leaks… these are all things that can have a drastic effect on how much fuel you’ve used and how much you have left.
So it’s important to always have an idea of how the fuel consumption is going. In fact, one of the very first things that pilots do while flying once they reach cruising speed and altitude is to begin checking fuel use. You want to know that you have enough to make it or if you need to stop.
And if for some reason (i.e. damaged runway, traffic, etc.) that you need to stay in the air longer than originally planned, you must know how long you can fly for and when you need to find somewhere safe to land for fuel. These fuel consumption calculations are pretty easy to make and a good pilot will be able to figure potential fuel problems out quickly.
Staying On Course
While flying, it’s important to make sure that you’re staying on course and actually headed to the right place. After all, you don’t want to be flying to Canada and end up in Mexico, for example! And to do this, you’ll more than likely need to use a combination of geometry and trigonometry.
But thankfully, most planes these days navigate using GPS systems that are integrated into autopilot and other computer systems. So staying on course is not as hard as it used to be. But it’s still important that pilots know where they’re flying, which typically entails using a map and some quick math to get a general sense of the light path.
Now that I’ve mentioned autopilot and computer systems, let’s get into what any of you are likely thinking at this point.
Does Autopilot And Onboard Systems Do Most Of The Math For Pilots?
If everything above sounds intimidating and you don’t know how the pilot is supposed to do all of that while flying the plane, don’t worry. Thankfully, most of the calculations done while flying are actually handled by the airplane’s autopilot system and other onboard electronics systems. Especially in more modern aircraft.
As aviation continues to advance more and more, it seems that the computer systems and autopilot systems are just getting even more advanced. Well, that’s because they are getting more advanced. Modern autopilot systems on some aircraft can handle the entire flight for a pilot, from take-off through landing.
So it’s safe to assume that the majority of the calculations mentioned above are also handled by these systems. But not all aircraft have these fancy systems that handle most of the flight for the pilot. And even the ones that do, the pilot still needs to be available and be at the controls at all times, just in case human intervention is needed.
So it’s important for pilots to have an understanding of the underlying mathematics that’s going on behind the scenes regardless of whether the calculations are being handled by the aircraft or not. This way, the pilot can cross-check everything the plane’s doing and make any adjustments as needed.
So brush up on your math skills if you’re wanting to become a pilot, because you’ll have to do some sort of math while flying no matter what!
Can You Be A Pilot If You’re Bad At Math?
With all that math that pilots must do or at least understand, you might be worried that you can’t be a pilot if you aren't good at math. The truth is, most of the math that pilots have to do is pretty basic, at least when compared to things like calculus or differential equations.
As long as you can at least understand the basics of the different types of math and can do some basic arithmetic in your head, you should be fine. If you went to college and attended any math classes there, even though pilots don’t need a degree, then you'll be in great shape. College-level math classes are harder than anything you’ll need to do as a pilot!