The Art of the Chart
Somewhere in those symbols, lines, and colors is all the information you need to fly from here to there.
- By Stephan Wilkinson
- Air & Space magazine, November 1999
(Page 2 of 5)
In 1927, there was no piece of sky that was off limits to aviators. Today, everywhere you look there is airspace that is for one reason or another forbidden to pilots who fly by eye and choose not to have their routing defined by radio and air traffic controllers. There are also no--excuses, absolute--exclusion prohibited areas, the airspace above the White House perhaps the best known of them. There are military restricted areas where practicing dogfighters don't want to run into a Bonanza. There are air defense zones where, if you enter without notice, it's assumed you're a terrorist. There are vast blocks of restricted airspace over many big cities to provide freedom for airliners to maneuver during arrival and departure. There are routes where bombers practice very-low-altitude missions--not strictly forbidden airspace, but you're warned that you might be sharing it with a B-52 on fast--forward down in the weeds. Sectionals show all of these as well.
A typical sectional makes a Manhattan road map look like the scrawled directions to your friend's Fourth of July barbecue. "Yes, chart clutter absolutely is a problem," admits Ronald Bolton, the chief of the AC&C's Aeronautical Chart Division, the group that compiles and continually corrects sectionals. "These are the most complex charts I've ever worked with, and I've been doing this since 1974. We make the best damn charts in the world, and we spend more money checking and verifying them than we do in actually producing and printing them. It's a very accurate product."
I have flown with charts and without--the without largely the consequence of carelessness or overconfidence. But just as those who've been rich and poor say rich is better, I say charts is better. One night, a friend dropped me off at a maintenance shop in New England to pick up my airplane, and sailed away into the starry dark before I realized that I'd forgotten my sectional.
Never mind, this is home territory, I thought. For 33 years I'd criss-crossed the cities and rivers and highways around my home in the Hudson River Valley. Hell, I'll just fly west till I hit the Hudson.
Let me tell you how lonely it feels to be a mote in the sky, suspended above a vast sea of lights--and, worse, areas of utter blackness--with an increasing awareness that you haven't the faintest idea where you are. Had the Hudson River already passed beneath me? Was that city Hartford, or was it Albany? I couldn't pull over and ask directions unless I chanced to see the beacon of an airport. Without my sectional I was a blind person with a 200--mph cane, tap-tap-tapping across the airspace and relying on memory.
I once flew with a bush pilot in the northern Arctic--indeed, we were on our way to the north magnetic pole, and, magnetic compass useless, he kept track of our grumbling old de Havilland Otter's progress with his thumb on a chart that he held in the same hand that held the yoke. He moved thumb and fingers as though he was saying a very slow rosary. Otters don't go very fast, but if he'd dropped the near-featureless map and lost his place, we might as well have landed, parked, and waited for the Mounties to find us.
Charts are security. Charts are essential. Even a cockpit filled with computers doesn't substitute for a map. Some months ago, riding in the jumpseat of an SAS 757 from Oslo to Newark, New Jersey, I was amused to notice that the first officer, sitting behind navigation displays the size of small television sets, not only kept track of our progress on a paper chart but had outlined the route with a yellow highlighter.
In his Washington, D.C. office, cartographer Cambetes picks up a folded sectional and says, "This is a tool." He whacks it again and again against a steel partition. "Now may I do that with your fancy handheld GPS receiver, please? GPS is also a tool, but don't leave the sectional out of your toolbox because of it."