How to Read Aviation Charts

Written by kirk maltbee
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How to Read Aviation Charts
Reading aviation flight charts is an important skill when learning to fly. (Nicholas Eveleigh/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

Many aviation enthusiasts undergo rigorous training in an effort to become licensed commercial pilots, whether they're looking to enter the field professionally or simply for their own leisurely pastime. One important aspect of training is learning to read, or navigate, a flight chart properly. For novices, many of the symbols displayed on the typical chart are self-explanatory; others may need a bit of explanation for the would-be pilot to fully understand what's being presented.

Skill level:


  1. 1

    Lay the chart out in front of you. You'll notice that man-made structures like buildings, dams and houses are presented in the chart's typical topographical style (lines for roads, boldfaced lines for bridges and tunnels, and cones for power lines).

  2. 2

    Look at the colours presented on the chart. The varying hues are meant to relay rises and dips in landscape elevation; for instance, mountainous regions coloured dark brown are generally 14,000 feet above sea level while the deepest blues are, of course, the ocean (sea level). Yellowish hues convey metropolitan areas.

  3. 3

    Note the small plus ("+") and minus ("-") signs on the map. These are airport icons. Plus signs are meant to denote paved runways up to 8,000 feet in length; larger plus and minus icons indicate paved runways longer than 8,000 feet. The letter R next to an airport icon means that area is restricted (privately owned airports), while military ports are noted with letters (AFB for Air Force Base, for example).

  4. 4

    Note the blue box on the map that gives specific airport information: blue means the airport has a control tower; pertinent information like the airport's tower communication frequency number will displayed next to the abbreviation CT (control tower). The letter L indicates a lighted runway, while an L with an asterisk indicates the pilot must request the tower turn on the runway lights.

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