AOPA Pilot Magazine - July 2013 - 91
DOGFIGHT: THE E6B COMPUTER
This month, we welcome esteemed aviation writer Barry Schiff into the ring. He and Senior Editor Dave Hirschman debate
the merits of one of aviation’s finest inventions—the E6B computer.
I want my E6B
Ditch the E6B
Movies dig them, and chicks do too
You won’t miss it
BY BARRY SCHIFF
B Y DAV E H I R S C H M A N
THE INTRODUCTION of the digital aviation computer caused widespread belief that the conventional E6B computer would rapidly
become an obsolescent relic. But a funny thing happened on the
way to the graveyard. The old-fashioned whiz wheel not only survived, it thrived and continues to outsell its microchip counterpart.
One explanation for the continued popularity of the E6B computer is that it is a status symbol. It is cool to have and to brandish.
This is similar to when college math, science, and engineering students used to take pride in strutting around campus with slide rules
dangling conspicuously from their belts, ready to be quick-drawn
like six-shooters from low-slung holsters. Young pups like Dave
Hirschman likely never had this pleasure.
I purchased an E6B after my first
flying lesson. It’s not that I needed
one so early in my flying career—and
I certainly didn’t have discretionary
income to burn—but I liked the way it
looked. It identified me as an aviator.
I loved being asked by nonpilots to
explain the esoteric E6B “confuser.”
The E6B has style, personality. An
electronic model looks like any other
calculator with a microchip. The E6B
also provides us with a sense of history. Just think of all the navigators you have seen using them in
war and airline movies while hunched over their charts. Watching
them punch in numbers on an electronic calculator at such times
would look weird (if not anachronistic).
Perhaps the most significant reason for the E6B’s longevity and
continued popularity is the elegant simplicity with which a pilot can construct a wind
triangle, one that is similar to the one that
can be plotted on an aeronautical chart.
Plotting a wind triangle on an E6B, however, is simpler and requires making only
one small pencil mark on the wind side
of the computer to represent wind velocity. (For those who don’t have any of those
lead-filled, wooden devices, pencils with
erasers can still be purchased in five-anddime stores. Oops. I meant to say, office
supply stores.) Once that is done, the pilot
simply adjusts the sliding scale to the applicable true airspeed and rotates the compass
rose to the desired true course. Voilà! The
WITH HEARTFELT ADMIRATION for the genius of E6B creator Phillip
Dalton, it’s time to admit that the era of the circular slide rule isn’t
just gone, it’s long gone. The whiz wheel that pilots and navigators
used to help find their way around the planet since the 1930s was a
wonder in its time. But like slide rules and sextants that also were
widely used in the same era the E6B was born, those antiquated navigation devices have happily given way to far better ones.
Calculators, fuel computers and totalizers, radio navigation, satellite weather, and GPS have all come into being since the E6B was
invented during the first Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, and
they all do its jobs (or at least portions of them) better than any crude
mechanical instrument ever could. Modern avionics make distance,
fuel consumption, and time en route calculations constantly—and in many cases
graphically—without requiring number
crunching from tired, cranky, distracted,
or semi-hypoxic humans.
As a flight student and novice pilot,
I’d use an E6B to calculate my airplane’s
fuel burn, then round up a little; figure
a wind correction angle and estimated
groundspeed, then fudge some more.
By the time I actually got where I was
going, my plans seldom bore more than a passing resemblance to
actual reality. These days, an Internet flight planner eliminates such
preflight guesswork; a fuel computer constantly updates the rate
of fuel consumption, fuel used, and time remaining; XM Weather
shows winds aloft and forecasts; and GPS calculates groundspeed
five times a second.
When I refill the fuel tanks at my destination, I usually know within a teacup
how much they will hold. No technology
is infallible, of course, and pilots have been
known to enter the wrong waypoints, airport identifiers, fuel quantities, and other
erroneous data (don’t ask how I know!). But
even E6B aces such as the esteemed Barry
Schiff can make mistakes with mechanical
flight computers, especially when operating
them with one thumb in bumpy cockpits.
Fred Noonan, Amelia Earhart’s navigator
on their ill-fated around-the-world flight,
had an E6B—and he certainly would have
gladly traded it for a handheld GPS while
searching in vain for Howland Island.
Continued on page 92
Continued on page 92
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