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How to Use Aeronautical Charts

Updated March 23, 2017

The most basic type of aeronautical charts used by pilots are visual flight rules (VFR) sectional charts. To the untrained eye, VFR sectional charts can seem like a meaningless jumble of colours, symbols, dots and squiggly lines. Have you ever wondered what all of these notations mean? A simple, straightforward and quick process will let you know how to read VFR sectional charts and use them for navigating the skies.

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  1. Study the chart's legend. The legend functions as the map key and provides the meanings of all the symbols used on the chart. Read over these carefully because these items are key to understanding the sectional chart.

  2. Identify as many symbols as you can on the chart. Start with an airport with a control tower, and use a marker to draw a line to an airport without a control tower. Then, identify as many symbols along your route of "flight" as you can, using the legend and FAA Aeronautical Chart Guide as necessary.

  3. Plan a mock flight. Determine the distance of your route using an aviation plotter, ensuring the plotter is turned to the "sectional scale" (1:500,000). Determine when to contact Air Traffic Control (ATC), what obstacles (such as mountains, tall towers, restricted areas) may be in your way, what you will see below in cruise and what navigation aids are available to you along your route.

  4. Take an actual flight. Apply what you learnt by taking an introductory flight with a certified flight instructor (CFI). This can be done at most airports, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. Use the chart to navigate during the flight.

  5. Tip

    Use the lines of latitude and longitude to determine north, south, east and west. Plot your course in nautical miles. Pilots use nautical miles instead of regular (known as "statute" in aviation) miles for navigation. The aviation plotter has a "nautical" scale in addition to the statute scale.


    Use the "sectional" (1:500,000) and "nautical" scale of your plotter. Otherwise, your distances will be incorrect.

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Things You'll Need

  • VFR sectional chart
  • Marker
  • Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Aeronautical Chart Guide
  • Aviation plotter

About the Author

Elias Westnedge began writing in 2009. His work appears on various websites, covering aviation, sales, grants, business and consumer finance. Westnedge holds a Bachelor of Science in aviation.

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