Plane Answers: What kind of math skills are needed to become a pilot?

Zach asks:

Hello First Officer Kent!

It has been my dream since early childhood to earn a private pilot’s certificate. For a number of reasons–both financial and otherwise–it is only now (pushing age 30) that I am able to seriously begin the process of choosing a flight school and creating a road map to the goal of earning the license (while I would love to work as an airline pilot, I am content to keep my less interesting day job and fly as a pure hobbyist).

The only potential barrier that I can envision is what I fear to be a lack of the necessary math acumen to be successful. I am simply intimidated by any math more complicated than very basic algebra, and while this is something that I believe I can overcome, I wonder how it will impact my ability to earn a private pilot’s certificate. How much and what type of math is necessary to know in order to reach this goal? Should I brush up on any particular area of mathematics before starting my flight training?

Hi Zach,

I have good news for you.

You’re not the first to ask me this question, so I imagine many others have this impression as well. Perhaps it’s fueled by a few math teachers who may use occupations like flying as a carrot to get their students to study more. But there isn’t anything even approaching basic algebra required to get your licenses, even up to the ATP level.

I was admittedly horrible at math and struggled with it all the way through college. Not a pretty sight. Since college, I haven’t even thought about algebraic equations. Frankly, the most complicated math I do today is figuring out the time for the crew rest periods when crossing the Atlantic with three pilots. Fortunately, there’s even an app for that.

That said, it was my ability to complete the required math courses that allowed me to get through college. And college has been necessary to land a job at a major airline. But that doesn’t seem to be your goal at this point.

Hope you do take up your dream!

Michael asks:


I was talking with a pilot from a different airline than yours and he was saying that at his company they now prefer to use idle reverse thrust. I’m wondering why this would be (versus revving those bad boys up in max reverse)? Why not just leave the throttles at complete idle? Does reverse idle do much for deceleration versus complete idle?

Hi Michael,

Many airports, such as Manchester and London, are requiring idle reverse be used in the mornings due to noise restrictions. I actually prefer that, because passengers seem to enjoy the quiet, calm landings. Typically reverse thrust will shorten your landing distance by only 400 feet depending on the conditions.

Given plenty of runway, idle reverse landings are rather nice. But there are tradeoffs. Avoiding maximum reverse thrust does wear the brakes out faster. But there may be fuel and engine savings associated with idle reverse.

When the engines are at idle they actually produces a bit of thrust. So idle revers blocks that residual thrust and pushes it forward giving you some extra stopping power at no cost while in idle reverse.

Tom asks:

While I was looking at some Boeing posters of widebody aircraft in school–a 767/757 and up and I’ve noticed there are three autopilots. A left, center, and right. What is the point of three? Is it just for redundancy?

Hi Tom,

The three autopilots are used at the same time only on aircraft that are certified for autolands, which are used in extremely low visibility landings.

The autopilots are all selected just before shooting the approach and they become independent at 1500 feet, all the way to the ground. This way, if one electrical source is ever lost, the airplane can continue.

Other Boeings that don’t have autoland capability may still have three autopilots, but they aren’t selected at the same time. They’re just cycled through at the beginning of each flight so they see an even amount of use. So yes, on those aircraft they would be there solely for redundancy.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work. Twitter @veryjr