How Pilots Use Math

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Have you ever wondered what is was like to be a pilot? Wondered what it would be like to be the one behind the controls of a 737 or a private jet, flying the friendly skies?

Meet Captain Eric Gillet.  He is a pilot and has been for the past 30 years. 

Captain Gillet is going to help us understand what it's like to be a pilot; what happens in the cockpit, what are all those controls for, and what kind of math is required of him as he travels from place to place.

Being a pilot is a fun job, but it is also a lot of hard work, and requires dedication, math and yes, even stress.  But, most pilots will tell you it is worth it!   Visiting different cities, meeting new people and soaring above the Earth with the clouds is an amazing job.

Eric flies a private jet for Net Jets. He gets to fly all sorts of people from ranchers, business men/women and rock stars, around the United States and US Virgin Islands for business and vacations.

He works a 7-day shift that can sometimes take him from coast to coast and back again, stopping in many cities in between. 

After a long 7 days of flying, Captain Gillet gets 7 days off.   Every 7 days he flies with a new co-pilot. They travel for 7 days working together to fly the airplane. Being a pilot requires a lot of time away from your family but he also gets to enjoy them on his days off.

Pilots can work as many as 14  hours of day. Because Eric is a pilot of a private company. he stays in a different city every night. That's a lot of hotels!  Some pilots who work for a major airline, like Southwest, may fly the same route over and over every day. For example, a pilot who lives in Houston, Texas may have a flight schedule that takes him to Seattle and back a few times a day.  Many times they will even travel with the same co-pilot and crews. Some pilots even fly for the U.S military.

Eric admit his favorite subject in school was recess.:) But since he became a pilot, he has developed a love and appreciation for math.  It was as a young boy that Eric first discovered his love and fascination with flying:

"My father was a professional pilot and he introduced me to planes and flying when I was a very young. During high school, I decided that I also wanted to become a pilot.  So as a graduation gift, my parents paid for an introductory flying course ..... since then, I have been hooked."

I asked Eric where his favorite place to fly is, and here is what he had to say,

"Out west, over mountain ranges and I always enjoy flying over the San Francisco Bay Area. However, my most memorable flight was flying up the Hudson River into Manhattan at 2 ,000 feet! l also so enjoy flying over large cities at night."

You may be asking yourself exactly what kind of an education is required to become a pilot--Eric tells us:

"First you need to get your ratings as a private pilot, next an instrument rating and then a commercial license.  In addition, you would also need to get a multi-engine pilot rating.  Most pilots would then get an instructor rating so they could accrue flight hours as an instructor. Five Hundred flight time hours is about the minimum requirement to be hired as a pilot.  In order to get a high paying professional pilot position, you would also need to have an (ATP) airline transport pilot license and in a competitive marketplace a bachelors degree and/ or military flight service would be important as well."

After all that school and training, there is more--

Being a pilot requires lots of training. Each year pilots have to complete 14 days of training in a flight simulator. A flight simulator is just like flying a real aircraft, pilots get inside of a big cockpit that recreates an actual flight. If pilots don't pass their flight simulator test, they can get their license taken away.

Most importantly here is how Eric and other pilots use math everyday:

Problems I solve with math:

  • How many gallons of fuel to order:

Begin by determining how many pounds of fuel are needed.

-omit last 0, divide by 1/2,

-add both to get gallons needed.

Example:  you need 3000 lbs = 3000, omit last 0 = 300, add 1/2 of
that = 300+150 = 450 gallons needed. Note: jet pilots calculate fuel in lbs of
fuel per hour not gallons, but fuelers fuel the airplane by gallons.


  • How to calculate your descent: 

You're cruising at 40,000 feet. How far out should you begin to descend

for landing?

-Take the difference in your altitude and the altitude of the airport. So let's
say your descending into New York which is at sea level, that would be a 40,000
foot difference. Omit the last three numbers off the difference = 40. Multiply by
3. 40x3 = 120. So you should start your descent a 120 miles out.

But you're not finished.

  • How fast should you descend:

- Measured on an instrument called a vertical speed indicator in feet per minute.

-Take your ground speed, let's say 500 miles per hour

-divide by 2

-add a 0 to get you rate of descent.

Example: 500÷2 =250 and add a zero to the end to get 2500.

So you should descend 120 miles out and start at 2500 feet per minute down. And
as your ground speed changes you will have to adjust your descent rate to get at
the airport at the right altitude. in a jet, your target is 10,000 feet above the
airport 30 miles out and then 1,500 feet 5 miles out.

Enjoy this free word problem worksheet using the examples above.

If you have more questions about being a pilot we would love to hear from you!

Over and out.