Do I Need to be Good at Maths to be a Pilot?

Do I Need to be Good at Maths to be a Pilot?

Do I need to be good at Maths to be a pilot?

You need to be reasonably good at Maths in order to be an airline pilot, but you don’t need to excel at it. Being able to complete mental arithmetic quite quickly is important as you are often required to make relatively easy calculations in your head whilst flying.

The most commonly used mental arithmetic calculations are simple addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. If you are good at these types of calculations, you can quickly work out things like how much fuel you need for a flight or are burning an hour, speed distance and time calculations, and the rate of climb or descent needed.

To get an Air Transport Pilots Licence (ATPL), you need to pass a number of theory examinations. Some of these exams, like General Navigation, requires you to understand and apply Maths concepts like Trigonometry and Pythagoras theorem. However, in reality you don’t tend to make calculations relating to these concepts on a daily basis when flying a commercial jet.

What grade do I need in Maths?

Essentially, if you have achieved a good grade in Maths at GCSE level or the Secondary/High School examinations, you should be fine. If you haven’t achieved this then don’t worry, it takes some people a bit longer to grasp Maths and you may find that you get much better at it as you get a bit older. Most airlines and flight schools will want to see that you achieved an equivalent of grade C or level 4 or above in Maths, but if you get good A-Level grades or a University degree, then your GCSE / Secondary grades become less important.

The single most used calculation applied to every flight is the application of the 3 times table to calculate, using a rule of thumb, if you are too high or low when descending.  This is simple calculation of removing the last three digits of the altitude and multiplying the remaining number by 3, to calculate roughly how many miles you need to descent. For example, at 30,000 feet, you would multiply 30 by 3 which gives 90. This means at 30,000ft, you need roughly ninety nautical miles to descend, assuming a constant 3-degree glide path. You don’t have time to use a calculator to work these calculations out, so you need to be able to do them quickly in your head.

Flight School & Airline Entrance Exams

Many flight schools and some airlines require you to complete a Maths test as part of the selection process. These tend to be mental arithmetic based tests where you can’t use a calculator.

Examples of Pilot Maths Calculations

Examples of the type of calculations you have to make when piloting a commercial aircraft include:

  • If Air Traffic Control tell you to descent from 20,000ft to 14,000ft and reach that level within 3 minutes, what is the minimum rate of descent you require? The actual calculation is quite easy, it’s just knowing what to do with the information. All you are doing is taking the total altitude you need to lose (which is 6,000ft) and dividing it by 3 (the number of minutes in which you need to descend). The answer is therefore 2,000ft per minute.
  • If you are climbing at an average of 1,800 feet per minute, how long will it take you to climb 9,000ft? The answer is 5 minutes (9,000 divided by 1,800).
  • If you are burning 2.4 tons of fuel an hour, how much fuel will you burn in 2 hours and 30 minutes? The answer is 6 tons. (2.4 multiplied by 2.5).
  • If you are flying at an average speed of 240kts, how long will it take you to fly 720 nautical miles? The answer is 3 hours (720 divided by 240).
  • If you take-off at 16:15 and landed at 19:48, how long was the flight? The answer is 3 hours and 33 minutes.