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The Art of the Chart

Somewhere in those symbols, lines, and colors is all the information you need to fly from here to there.

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."

Sectional charts are often taken for granted, yet they are printing and publishing accomplishments of immense complexity, acts of reproduction that approach an art form. Countless private pilots have papered their rec-room walls with sectionals, carefully pasted edge to edge to provide not only colorful wallpaper but a reminder of the enormous span of land that a set of wings can bridge. I don't know of any road maps that have been accorded the same honor. Unfortunately, you need Bill Gates' living room, or at least a wall 40 feet long and almost 20 high, to hang the 37 sectionals that cover just the 48 contiguous states. And there's one more for Hawaii and 16 for Alaska.

A typical sectional is almost five feet wide and more than a foot and a half high, printed on both sides. And like urban commuters who develop the ability to turn the pages of a newspaper in a packed subway car, pilots in cramped and often windy cockpits consider the proper folding and unfolding of a sectional a skill as important as leaning an engine's fuel mixture by ear. Even more demanding is the ability to pick up where you left off when your track suddenly migrates from one side of the sectional to the other. Indeed, each chart has instructions on how to handle that dilemma when you're plotting a course.

The compensation for the sectional's unwieldiness is the immensely satisfying proof of one's progress that comes when you move onto the Denver chart, say, and can fold up and put away the Wichita chart. Or, in the case of a slow airplane and a fast headwind, the equivalent is simply crossing a crease in the map and being able to rearrange the folds.

The base for each sectional--the primary map of the country's physical surface--is created from Department of the Interior Geological Survey 7.5 quadrangle maps, which are the delicately delineated maps that blanket the country in a scale so finely focused--each inch of paper is equivalent to a little over a third of a mile--that in rural areas, every house and barn is depicted. On a sectional, each quadrangle covers an area the size of a postage stamp, and it takes 2,000 of them to make up an entire sectional chart. (An inch on a sectional is just under eight miles.)

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