Ready or Not

Chart currency matters

BY VINCENT CZAPLYSKI (From AOPA Pilot, October 2004.)

Considering the sheer amount of information packed into most aeronautical charts, flying with outdated charts would seem to qualify for automatic bad-idea status. Kind of like wearing a leisure suit to your daughter's sixteenth birthday party hard to say what might happen exactly, but there is reasonable potential that the outcome wouldn't be good.

On the other hand, most of the time, most of the newly revised data contained in the latest edition of the various aeronautical charts we use doesn't really affect how we plan and operate a given flight. That's because we typically use only a tiny percentage of the information that these charts contain. A newly constructed 500-foot-tall radio tower or a recently closed airport doesn't much matter to us if our route of flight doesn't take us anywhere near the new tower or the closed airport. Thus the temptation to aviate without the very latest chart can sometimes seem to fall into the reasonable risk category. But is this tactic ever truly reasonable? Is chart currency a black-and-white decision, or is there room to wiggle here?

You can't go wrong, of course, by making it a hard-and-fast rule to always fly with the most current charts appropriate to your flight. But what is the real harm, after all, in flying with an out-of-date sectional, world aeronautical chart, or other aeronautical chart on a milk-run flight you know like the back of your hand? That's the question some pilots have asked and answered by taking a chance flying with charts that are no longer current. The majority of time they get away with it no harm, no foul. But once in a while they end up in trouble as a direct result of using out-of-date information.

The federal aviation regulations offer some unusually clear guidance in this matter. FAR 91.103 describes the pilot-in-command's preflight duties, and most pilots are intimately familiar with its wording: "Each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with all available information concerning that flight." That covers a lot of territory and would seem to imply at least an obligation to utilize all current information concerning the flight.

But in case there is any doubt, at least for some pilots, FAR 91.503, "Flying equipment and operating information," gets more specific on the matter of charts. It reads, in part, "(a) The pilot in command of an airplane shall ensure that the following flying equipment and aeronautical charts and data, in current and appropriate form, are accessible for each flight at the pilot station of the airplane," including: "(3) Pertinent aeronautical charts;" and "(4) For IFR, VFR over-the-top, or night operations, each pertinent navigational en route, terminal area, and approach and letdown chart."

This section of the regulation is specific to aircraft weighing more than 12,500 pounds and turbine-powered multiengine airplanes. It therefore does not apply to most light general aviation aircraft. However, in any airplane you'd have a tough time explaining away an error you made as a result of depending on a clearly outdated chart. That was the predicament faced by one hapless Bonanza pilot who flew VFR to Laughlin/Bullhead International Airport in Arizona. His out-of-date sectional chart didn't indicate that the once-nontowered Laughlin/Bullhead airport now had an operating control tower. After calling the wrong airport's unicom frequency for advisories, he proceeded to land at Laughlin/Bullhead without a clearance. To make matters worse, he did so in front of a departing Boeing 737, which aborted its takeoff roll to avert a collision. The FAA incident report doesn't give details of the pilot's subsequent carpet dance, but we can imagine it wasn't a pleasant scene.

The pilot of a Cessna 172 committed a similar faux pas by landing at the Gila Bend Air Force Auxiliary Field in Arizona, instead of the near-by Gila Bend Municipal Airport, which was his intended destination. According to the FAA incident report, the error stemmed in part from the pilot's use of an outdated world aeronautical chart.

Nowadays, with GPS moving-map technology readily available to more pilots, there is perhaps an even greater temptation to fly with noncurrent charts. After all, the GPS will keep us out of trouble, won't it? That was what the pilot of a Mooney M20C en route VFR to the Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport in Kansas City, Missouri, apparently thought. His plan was to stay below the floor of the Kansas City International Airport Class B airspace by referencing his GPS for the approach and landing to the downtown airport. All went as planned until the GPS failed in close proximity to the lateral limits of the Class B. Compounding the pilot's misfortune was the fact that not only didn't he have a current chart on board, but also he didn't have any chart. His guesstimate of the proper heading required to stay out of the Class B wasn't good enough, resulting in some unpleasant (and avoidable) discussions with the FAA. Incidentally, just like your charts, GPS databases need to be updated periodically. Depending solely on a woefully out-of-date GPS database for navigation is just asking for trouble.

According to the FAA's National Aeronautical Charting Office (NACO) Web site (http://www.naco.faa.gov/), the agency produces and maintains about 15,000 different aeronautical charts and other publications each year, used by all facets of civil and military aviation. Many federal, state, and local agencies contribute data to the vast databases NACO uses to compile these products. The agency also continuously collects data from a multitude of other sources, including various private sector entities. In any given year, NACO publishes an astronomical number of individual changes to aviation charts.

The real problem with flying with out-of-date charts is that you don't have a good way of knowing what's missing and, thus, exactly how important that unknown information might be to your flight. Even a single frequency change can have potentially big implications. Such proved to be the unfortunate case for the crew of a Hawker Siddeley 125-700 twinjet that crashed while attempting a landing at the 6,451-foot-elevation Jackson Hole Airport in Wyoming on December 20, 2000.

According to the NTSB report of the accident, the captain was conducting the ILS approach to Runway 18 (now Runway 19) that night. Visibility was reported at 5 miles, with few clouds at 100 feet, scattered clouds at 1,000 feet, and an overcast layer at 1,600 feet. Winds were from 250 degrees at 10 knots, gusting to 14 knots. While descending through 9,000 feet and still 5 miles from the runway, the captain reported that he had " the airport in sight." Shortly afterward, the flight data recorder captured a discussion between the captain and first officer dealing with how to turn on the pilot-controlled runway lighting. The copilot said, " It'd be 122.8 if it's not on." He then tried to activate the runway lights on that frequency by clicking his microphone five to eight times during four separate attempts, all to no avail.

Meanwhile the captain continued the approach with the runway lights still off. During the flare and touchdown, blowing snow caused a whiteout condition. The captain believed he had landed on the runway. Tracks in the snow, however, revealed that the touchdown actually occurred 3,300 feet south of the Runway 18 threshold, with the aircraft then rolling out parallel to the runway for 600 feet before coming to a stop in deep snow. Both wings were badly damaged, and the nose cone and nose gear separated from the aircraft. Fortunately both pilots and their two passengers escaped injury.

The previously nontowered Jackson Hole Airport had received a newly commissioned control tower the previous June. At that time, the CTAF frequency was changed from 122.8 MHz to reflect the new tower frequency of 118.07 MHz. Two Jeppesen approach plates for the Jackson Hole ILS 18 approach were found in the wreckage. One was dated October 8, 1999, and indicated that the pilot-controlled lighting frequency was 122.8. The other chart, dated August 18, 2000, reflected the correct frequency of 118.07.

In its final report on the accident, the NTSB found that the probable cause was the pilot's failure to follow IFR approach procedures and perform a missed approach when the runway was not in sight below approach minimums. But it cited as one of several contributing factors the copilot's failure to use the correct frequency to turn on the runway lights.

Incident and accident reports like this one make a compelling argument in favor of always flying with the most current charts available. Short of certain times when charts aren't actually needed at all, such as a local flight within a short distance of a private unmarked landing strip or other such special circumstance, why fly with anything less?

When you think about it, aviation charts are brilliant examples of how to present a maximum amount of useful information in a relatively small package. For any pilot to purposely not take advantage of all the most current information simply does not add up to good decision making.


Vincent Czaplyski holds airline transport pilot and flight instructor certificates. He flies as a Boeing 737 captain for a major U.S. airline.