For those of you fascinated with aviation it is a fair question. If you are thinking about becoming a pilot, the maths component might be scary. Fortunately, there is no need to be concerned. All pilots, whether professional or recreational, generally only need to use a few basic maths skills – they are addition, subtraction, division and multiplication.

Believe it or not, one of the most important skills is being able to determine the time – either at a departure point, destination or places along the flight route. The aviation industry uses a standard worldwide time reference called Universal Time Co-ordinated (UTC), which originates from Greenwich, a historical village on the Thames River just 20 minutes’ drive east of central London. It was here that the UTC time system was established in 1847. While sounding simple, adding and subtracting time zone conversions can quickly become confusing.

The world is divided into 24 time zones which run north to south (imagine 24 equal vertical slices of an orange) – for example Perth is in the same time zone as Singapore, which is 8 hours ahead of Greenwich, London. When planning a flight or giving a time estimate to Air Traffic Control (ATC), maths addition skills are needed to add 8 hours to the local time for the ATC time report in the UTC standard format. Los Angeles, by contrast, is 8 hours behind Greenwich so subtracting 8 hours from the local time there would provide a UTC time estimate. Time zone conversions are a basic, but important skill to grasp, easy to confuse and require solid addition and subtraction maths skills.

The next equally important maths skill is determining how much fuel an aircraft burns each hour? Once known, the time and distance that an aircraft can fly on a full tank of fuel can be determined. For example, if an aircraft burns 600kg of fuel per hour, and it holds 1800kg total in the fuel tanks – how many hours of fuel (which equals flying time) does it have? For this we use our maths division skills to help find the answer. Dividing the total fuel (1800kg) by the fuel burn each hour (600kg) gives 3 hours of fuel, and flying time, before the pilot must land (of course every good pilot always keep some fuel in reserve!)

Further dividing the fuel burn figures down allows other convenient equivalent burn rates. For example, dividing 600kg of fuel burn per hour (every 60 minutes) by 6 gives 100kg of fuel burnt every 10 minutes, or 10kg of fuel burnt every 1 minute…you get the idea. The same method of division can be used to find other important parameters such as oil burn rates, distance travelled, time to destination, rates of climb and descent etc…it’s all calculated using basic division!

Finally, the other maths skill used many times each day by pilots is multiplication. For example, pilots are constantly preparing for potential worst-case situations, such as “what happens if I lose an engine?” “can I still maintain my height on one engine?” or, “if I lose an engine after take-off can I maintain my rate of climb when flying away from the ground?” Of course, these are extremely rare occurrences, but preparation is essential for the unlikely day, or night, that it may happen. Pilots are bound by many regulations issued by various regularity bodies such as the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority. One of these regulations requires that if an engine fails after take-off, a minimum climb angle must be maintained while flying away to avoid collision with the ground and objects such as buildings or bridges.

That minimum angle required is 2.5% which looks scary to calculate, but is actually quite easy to work out. As an example, let’s consider a twin engine helicopter losing an engine shortly after take-off. The after take-off fly away speed with an engine failure is 60 knots to achieve the minimum required climb away angle of 2.5%, so multiplying 60 (knots) x 2.5(%) gives 150 feet per mile angle of climb. But how does the pilot know if they are actually achieving this in the cockpit? Well in this case 60 knots speed is equal to 60 miles per hour – which is equal to 1 mile per minute, so a rate of climb equal to 150 feet per minute will ensure the minimum angle required to avoid hitting any objects. The pilot can simply maintain 60 knots speed and 150 feet per minute rate of climb and be certain that they are achieving the minimum required gradient. Multiplication saves the day!

These are real life examples that pilots use in their day-to-day job of flying. Some other theory about aerodynamics, flight planning and weight and balance calculations can be tricky, but once you grasp the concepts it becomes easy and often it all comes down to using addition, subtraction, division or multiplication. For those fortunate enough to end up flying an airliner, military or other modern aeroplanes and helicopters a lot of these calculations are automated by onboard computers that allow you to concentrate on flying the aircraft and keeping a safe operation. That said, it is always a good idea to know the basics if the technology fails so you can use your maths skills to be the hero!

ORIGO Education is focused on making learning mathematics meaningful, enjoyable, and accessible for all, including aspiring pilots. Let’s take flight!