How Much Math Is Involved With Being A Pilot?

How many kids have dreamed of flying through the sky, piloting an aircraft, only to be put off by the sheer amount of math involved?

Math is a tricky subject for many of us, with difficult school days killing a passion for flight.

How Much Math Is Involved With Being A Pilot?

While math is important to becoming a successful pilot, there’s less involved than you might think. Instead, a decent grasp of mental arithmetic and an ability to understand data can be all you need.

Pilots need to understand the math involved in flight, but the plane computer handles the majority of the calculations.

So, don’t let a few bad years of high school math destroy your pilot dreams. Learn all about the math needed to be a pilot here.

How Much Math Is Involved With Being A Pilot?

There is a fair bit of math involved in being a pilot, but perhaps less than you might think.

Although pilots are expected to have a good grasp of mathematical concepts such as geometry, algebra, and basic arithmetic, complicated calculations aren’t really part of the pilots’ day to day.

However, a basic understanding is necessary, just in case the need arises.

Much of the math involved in flying a plane will be basic formulas that you learn to use daily.

Things like how much longer it’s going to take to fuel the plane, when to start your descent, and conversions between feet and meters. And a large amount of these calculations will be done for you by the technology loaded onto the aircraft.

Sometimes, all the math you need to know will be which number to plug in, and where in the calculation it needs to go.

Pilots require a solid foundation in math, and an ability to complete mental calculations.

Part of the reason for this is so a pilot can respond if there is an issue. In case of an emergency, the pilot should be trained to perform the calculations necessary to ensure a safe landing.

Being able to accurately estimate fuel usage over an extended trip is a necessary skill of a pilot.

Nowadays, many of the calculations needed for a safe flight will be completed by the flight computer. And even before advanced computer systems, pilots weren’t alone in doing the calculations necessary. An engineer and navigator would be on hand.

Doesn’t The Plane Do Most Of The Calculations?

How Much Math Is Involved With Being A Pilot

Modern aircraft do most of the mathematical equations with limited input from the pilots.

However, pilots will be expected to understand what the autopilot is doing and recognize if there’s a problem. And in some rare cases, pilots will be required to manually perform certain calculations.

The Flight Management System (FMS) is basically the aircraft computer. It automates a huge amount of tasks, increasing safety by reducing the possibility of human error. It works every step of the way, from forming a flight plan to sticking the landing.

Technology is fantastic, but it isn’t infallible. Sometimes, it makes mistakes. In these scenarios, a pilot is expected to be able to recognize a mistake and adjust the calculation. Bad information input, or an internal fault, might mean a pilot is required to take over.

While we might hope these scenarios never happen, everyone is much safer if the pilot can be trusted with the math.

One of the most important things for a pilot is to be able to recognize when a mistake has been made. Without a basic grasp of math, a pilot might not notice something’s wrong until it’s much harder to fix.

When Are Pilots Required To Use Math?

Pilots aren’t expected to sit around doing calculations all day just to keep the plane in the air. Here are a few key moments when a pilot might be expected to use math.

Before Take Off

Before you’re in the air, a pilot might need to do some quick calculations. Understanding how long it’ll take to fuel the plane is one. Reading over the flight plan and checking the fuel allowance is another.

In some cases, a pilot may need to plan the route. This will require more mathematical knowledge, to calculate angles and distances.

During Take Off And Descent

The take-off and descent are the most complex moments of any flight.

To ensure safety, a pilot will need to understand angles, speed, distance, and how they all relate to each other. Particularly if any adverse weather might have an effect.

In most cases, the flight computer will take control of all of this, leaving the pilot free to concentrate on actually getting the plane up and down.

However, the pilot should be able to recognize an error, especially as even a smart computer will give bad results if provided with the wrong information.

Descent can be a time when more math is required, as various factors en-route may have affected the time and fuel allowance.

During The Route

When things are going smoothly, minimal math requirements will be needed. Instead, a pilot is expected to monitor the flight computer, and stay on top of things.

Even in the event of an emergency, the computer is likely to do the bulk of the mathematical heavy lifting.

Understanding Fuel Needs

An aircraft can only carry so much fuel, otherwise, the weight burns more fuel than it adds.

So, while a plane will carry extra, there isn’t a finite amount. And plenty of even minor factors can affect how much fuel is used during a flight.

Adverse weather is the main issue, either requiring an extended route or a push against wind resistance. Pilots are expected to be able to calculate how long the fuel will last, factoring in these delays.

What Type Of Math Are Pilots Required To Use?

How Much Math Is Involved With Being A Pilot

Geometry, algebra, and basic arithmetic are all used by pilots. Being able to do quick, simple mental math is also necessary.

A pilot is rarely required to use complex formulas, but part of the job is understanding how external factors can affect a flight. In many cases, this requires some math.

Can I Be A Pilot If I’m Bad At Math?

The FAA requires pilots to be proficient at using math, but they don’t specify exactly what level of proficiency is needed.

Pilots don’t need a degree in math, or any formal mathematics qualification passed a high school diploma.

If you can do basic mental math quickly, then you probably have the math skills needed to become a pilot. All the more complex details will be covered in pilot school.

If you’ve made it through your college math classes, then you should be alright.

Because yes, pilots can use calculators. In fact, it’s generally better to use a calculator than to risk messing up a formula you’re attempting in your head. But it helps to do basic calculations mentally, to keep your mind sharp.

Final Thoughts

Math is essential to keeping an aircraft in flight. However, the complex calculations are done by the flight computer, not the airline pilot.

The pilot is expected to know different types of math such as algebra and arithmetic, but not to degree level.

Even those who have struggled with math in the past can become a pilot once they understand the specific tools needed for the job.

Jacob Stern
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