Jun 162014
Mental math for pilots

Think you need to be a math whiz to become a pilot? Think again!

The truth is, if you have the basic math skills of adding, subtracting, simple multiplication and division, you’ve got what it takes to be a pilot.

Take a look at anyone trying to solve a complex math problem, they are focused and methodical, but not very speedy. When you’re in an airplane, you’re moving at lighting speed….ok, maybe not that fast, but depending on the airplane you might be traveling at nearly the speed of sound.

You don’t have time to figure out how to solve a math problem. Pilots use “mental math” and rules of thumb that help them figure out mathematical answers in a fraction of the time it would take to solve the actual math formula. For example, pilots regularly need to convert temperature readings from Fahrenheit to Celsius.

If you want an exact answer, you would use the following formula:

deg C = (deg F – 32) * 5/9

Try solving that in your head (or on paper) in a flight deck with impatient passengers in the back, ATC in your ear, and your Captain shouting out orders to you left and right. Not going to happen….

Instead, pilots use this formula:

deg C = (deg F – 32), then divide that by 2, then add a degree or two (roughly 10%)

So, let’s say it’s 86 degF. To convert to Celsius:

86 – 32 = 54, then
54 / 2 = 27, then
27 + 3 = 30 deg C
[note that 3 is roughly 10% of 27, or 2.7 rounded up to 3]

Using the actual formula, the exact answer is:

(86 – 32) * 5/9 = 30 degC

See, you get the same answer, except, using mental math, you can do it quite easily in your head! But, using the actual formula, you would have to write it out, use a calculator, or do it in your head but take much much longer to do.

I learned this by reading the book that should be part of every pilot’s library: Mental Math for Pilots: A Study Guide (Professional Aviation series)

It contains a lot of other mental math tricks that you can do easily and quickly while dealing with all the other tasks that flying entails.

I highly recommend it and you can find it just about anywhere aviation books are sold.

To get it from Amazon, you can go here:

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