For many decades, students, pilots, and flight instructors have been debating a very important flight training industry question: Should I use an electronic or mechanical flight computer? Well, it isn’t THAT important, but this question was debated even back in the 1990s when I first started flying, and still is with today’s generation of pilots. What’s all the debate about? I’ll give you my opinion in less than 600 words (a two-minute read).
Why You Should Get A Mechanical E6B
The mechanical E6B (also known as the “whiz wheel”) is a circular slide rule analog computer. Without batteries, you can use this tool for flight planning with wind-corrections, times, fuel burn, speeds, and more. You don’t need batteries! It can’t fail you in that precious moment you need to whip it out and calculate a fuel burn in flight, while bracing the cyclic between your knees and hoping the friction on your collective keeps power set. Or when you need to divert and calculate that perfect wind-correction course. All you have to do is line up marks to other marks, triangles, and windows. It’s simple. Kind of.
Why You Should Get An Electronic CX2
The electronic CX2 is a digital computer with options for the same calculations found in the mechanical E6B, and additional functions, like being an actual calculator and converting a wide range of units of measure to other units of measure. It does need batteries, but just carry spares if you’re concerned about it failing at a critical moment. It’s simpler to use than that “whiz wheel” and is just plug-n-play; no need to remember or read complicated instructions or line up triangles to windows and such nonsense. In-flight use will be so much easier, though you still have to manage those flight controls.
Modern Aviation Reality Check 101
We don’t use these things in the real world anymore, outside of teaching it as flight instructors. We have apps on our phones and/or tablets that do this for us, desktop-computer-based programs that plan everything when we login to open a manifest a commercial flight, and in-aircraft avionics that can handle these tasks as well. In my current job everything is electronic: we use ForeFlight on issued iPads as Electronic Flight Bags (EFBs), proprietary software for managing manifests, weight and balance, tracking, route planning, etc… No paper. No protractors. No “whiz wheels.”
Both of these tools are really just used for learning the process of flight planning and understanding the mathematical relationships of required calculations. Understanding is critical, as it helps you make better decisions “off the top of your head” during a diversion or during other quick-thinking navigational issues.
But, you can’t bring your laptop or smartphone to the Airman Knowledge Test. Per AC 60-11C: Test Aids And Materials That May Be Used By Airman Knowledge Testing Applicants, directly related aviation calculating devices are allowed, but have to have their memories, if electronic, erased prior to use. The testing center may even prohibit them all together and provide their own for applicant usage. There is no provision for you to bring your phone.
So, if you’re still working towards your certificates/ratings and have knowledge tests on your schedule, you should have either an E6B or CX2 or at least be very familiar with knowing how to work them when answering test questions. Once you’re done taking exams and done teaching students—if working as a flight instructor—pass it down to a new student for their benefit. You’ll never use these commercially again—I don’t even have one to take a photo of for this article!