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Digital chart rules: what does it take to make a digital representation of a chart legal for sole use in the cockpit? The answer is, "everything.".

In an age where you can embarrass yourself by watching videos of Megan Fox on your iPhone while waiting in line at the DMV, carrying around pounds of paper charts seems so passe. The question we keep hearing is: Are digital charts a legal substitute for paper charts so I can leave the paper behind?

The short answer is that for Part 91 flying in anything other than subpart F (large and turbine, multi-engine aircraft), they're legal so long as they don't interfere with any other equipment. But then, grabbing a napkin out of the FBO kitchen and copying down the runway info and frequencies you'll need is legal too. So is having out-of-date charts--including approach plates--if you have the correct information available. So if you want to mark up the tired paper charts you found somewhere in the back seat with the latest course, altitudes and notes, you're legal.


By legal, we're talking compliance with FAR 91.103 and 91.13, which respectively say that you'll "become familiar with all available information concerning that flight" and that you won't be careless and reckless. Get into trouble because you didn't know something, maybe because you didn't have the chart, and you can get dinged on both counts.

That's the beauty of going digital. Keep the database up to date and you've got the info on huge swaths of the globe without having to recalculate your weight and balance.

Gotta Have it All

There are some subtleties to the FAA guidance, however, that may play into this picture. While not in any FAR, the FAA has distinguished between approach plates and other charts, such as en route charts. Approach plates must be digital representations of the actual paper product. That's a fancy way of saying that what you see on the LCD screen must look just like what you'd see on paper. It doesn't have to be an actual paper scan, but it must look like it. This is why all the systems available today show you something identical to the paper plate.

That means that even though an approach loaded into your latest-system G1000 had all the critical courses, frequencies, altitudes and notes, it's still not good enough to be a substitute for the paper plate.

Again, the legal requirement under most of Part 91 is just for the information, not the plate. But we wouldn't want to argue the point if something went awry because we didn't have the chart note that circling north of the field was prohibited.

Paper or Better Than Paper?

En route charts can be graphics constructed from a database so long as they have all the information available on the real chart. So, does the pretty MFD screen count as a digital en route chart? Does it have all the information, including items like compulsorily reporting points and off-route obstruction altitudes? Right.

The way some vendors get around this is by the approach chart solution: They scan the charts. That's not an ideal solution, because scanned charts don't scale well. But most let you view either the scanned chart or the nicely zoomable moving map, so you call up the digital paper only if you need it. If your cockpit digital charts don't have scans, be sure you know how to ferret out any of that oddball information just in case.

It's really too bad that the FAA has clamped down on digital approach charts having to match the paper, because it stymies what must eventually happen to make all of these digital systems work. We need a new paradigm for what makes ah approach chart (and an en route chart, for that matter). Somewhere in the future of instrument flight there's a digital chart that not only lets you fluidly move in, out and around information with the ease of a Google map, but it knows where you are in the approach and accentuates the information you need at that moment.

Until that day, we'll all have to work with what the industry is offering. Of course, we could also ask ATC to look up that piece of information on the chart we didn't think to bring along. But that's just so embarrassing.
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Title Annotation:CHART CLINIC
Author:Van West, Jeff
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2009
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