Are Electronic Charts Legal?

A ForeFlight chart on an iPad

Here at EAA I keep getting questions about the legality of using one of the many electronic chart apps on portable electronic devices instead of paper charts. Do the FARs require current paper charts?

This will sound like heresy to many—probably most—pilots, but the FARs are totally silent on any requirement for charts of any kind if you fly for personal reasons in an airplane that is not a turbojet, or not certified for takeoff above 12,500 pounds.

I know. This sounds crazy. There must be a rule in there somewhere that requires charts. We were all told that by instructors. We were even scared into thinking that carrying an out of date chart broke some kind of FAR. But charts are just not mentioned in the rules that govern the way most of us fly.

FAR 91.503 does list aeronautical charts as an equipment and operating information requirement. But the “500” group of rules in Part 91 apply only to large and turbojet powered airplanes, or those that fly under fractional ownership rules. So before you light off your jet, make sure you have current charts, paper or electronic.

For the rest of us FAR 91.103 is the rule that comes closest to requiring charts of some sort—but the rule itself does not include the word chart. FAR 91.013 is the preflight requirement rule for all personal or business flying, in both large and small, and piston and jet, airplanes. This rule is like many, a catch all that includes few specific requirements, but is so general that if you screw up in some way you certainly have violated 91.103.

The preamble of FAR 91.103 states that “Each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with ALL available information concerning that flight.” The emphasis on ALL is mine. But you can see how any error we make during a flight can break this rule because ALL means, well, everything. And if you make a mistake, you clearly didn’t know ALL about the flight.

If the flight is under IFR then FAR 91.103 does require a pilot to have up to date weather information, fuel requirements, alternates and knowledge of any known ATC delays. If the flight is VFR the only specific requirement is to know runway lengths available at the airports you intend to use and information on whether your airplane has the capability to use those runways.

Airport and runway information is available from many sources, both paper and electronic, so no need for charts there. And nothing in the “preflight” rule requires a PIC to consider his route of flight, possible obstructions along the route, or more importantly these days, the location of regulated airspace near the planned route.

But that kind of flight planning information comes under the requirement in 91.103 to know ALL. If you didn’t know there was a TFR and you flew into it, you clearly didn’t know ALL information. But the location and effective times of a TFR won’t be on a paper chart. But it would be on many electronic chart apps. So in today’s dynamic world of air space restrictions, the electronic chart apps are far superior to paper.

Despite the lack of an FAR requiring charts, I think it’s crazy not to have some sort of chart in your cockpit. But I don’t believe paper charts have any advantage over electronic, and have the clear disadvantage of not being as current as the electronic chart can be.

I know, I know, the electronic chart equipment can fail, while paper just lays there with its reliable inked on image. But did you look out front? For most GA pilots there is only one motor. Is the engine more reliable than an iPad or a GPS navigator with its moving maps, or a satellite broadcast of current TFR locations? Maybe. But let’s keep things in perspective. In transport airplanes where charts are required there are multiple layers of backup for everything so the odds of not making it to an airport are believed to be somewhere around one in a billion, give or take a few hundred million.

In a typical GA airplane there are all sorts of single string systems—including propulsion—that can fail and leave us somewhere other than an airport. As long as your “chart” information is as reliable as the rest of your airplane, you have done the best you can.

Remember, waving around the most recent paper sectional chart at the guys in the F-16s won’t do much for you. But having electronic charts that show the boundaries of the TFR, or a satellite link that does the same, can keep you from meeting those fighter pilots and the FAA won’t care if your charts were electronic, paper, or anything else that did the job.

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31 Responses to Are Electronic Charts Legal?

  1. Cary Alburn says:

    Here’s a good example of getting “all” the necessary information for a flight, even if it’s a bit embarrassing to relate.

    I had this embarrassing circumstance years ago, arriving at Pocatello, ID, on an IFR flight plan without approach plates and a thick undercast. I was partners in a T210, and I had grabbed what I thought was the Jepp book out of it that contained the Idaho area in order to fly a borrowed Mooney, while my pard was using the 210. I had left Laramie in good VFR weather in a bit of a hurry, but I knew that weather westward was not great. I don’t recall where the undercast began, except that it was somewhere between Rawlins and Rock Springs. I figured to complete my flight planning enroute, but by the time I was looking for the Pocatello plates and discovered I didn’t have them, I really didn’t have enough fuel to safely return to RKS, for which I had plates, and I was less than half an hour out of Pocatello. I confessed my plight to Salt Lake Center, and when I was asked my intentions, I said that if the tower would have the ILS chart handy, I’d shoot the ILS with tower’s help.

    And that’s what I did. The tower guy was an instrument rated pilot, and he did a masterful job of describing the plate to me, resulting in a pretty easy approach, just a little more position reporting–PIH didn’t have radar at the time (don’t know if that’s changed), so I had to tell him where I was throughout the approach.

    When I taxied out later to return to Laramie, tower asked if I now had charts–which I did because I had copied them at the FBO. He said with a chuckle, “Just checking, cuz I’m off in a couple minutes, and no one on the next shift is a pilot.” I thanked him again, and the flight home was uneventful.


  2. Glenn Darr says:

    I flew my plane from Virginia to Arizona using WAC charts for planning when I was at the motel overnights. I used my iPad and Foreflight app for my charts while in the air. After the last update or so, I now can see if there are TFRs on my route. I think electronic is the way to go. I carry a local sectional in the plane and just replace it when a new one comes out. I seldom open the sectional anymore.

  3. SkyGuy says:

    - The FAR’s only require “sufficient” information for the flight.
    - I knew a pipeline pilot that flew the same route daily….for years.
    - FAA ramp check asked him for maps.
    - Answer was….”I have this route memorized after years of flying it.”
    - Only thing he checked was daily TFR’s + weather+ Notams.

  4. Michael Harris says:

    Nice to read an argument I have been making for years. One note – the POH can require you to carry paper charts, as was unintentionally the case in the early Cirrus equipped with Jepp charts on the MFD. The POH said to always carry paper as a backup, and that statement made it mandatory until it was removed in a POH revision. A bit about it on avweb here:

    • SkyGuy says:

      - Airplanes built before 1976….did not require a POH.
      - POH is something the lawyers came up with for light aircraft.

      - POH makes sense for faster / heavier aircraft.

  5. Kent Tarver says:

    Right on Mac. I have made a number of IFR flight in actuals without a single chart or approach plate in my Geronimo.

  6. trevor Smith says:

    My company is in the electronic charts business. We work closely with AeroNav, the FAA charting office on all aspects of their digital data. Recently they called us to find out how we were taking full sectionals ( and converting them to “tiles” (one degree quads…like Google Maps). They stated in that converstation that they are studying a change from printing paper charts to going full digital. So the ansser really is having CURRENT INFORMATION covering all aspects of your flight. Up to now this is satisfied by have all the sectionals and if IFR, entroute charts, and one or more airport facilities books. And, of course, metars, tafs, etc bearing in mind that the day after a sectional is published and released, IT MOST LIKELY IS NOT CURRENT.

    For example, our charting software is used by the Air-Medical industry and numerous Police who use our software to comply with FAA HEMS A021 reguiring that prior to flight, “the pilot must, using all available means”, find every obstacle and the highest terrain for each leg of their flight path, and fly specified minimums above the worst case values”. This, all to avoid terrain and tower collisions. I’m not marketing this here but instead, since we are experts in chart updates, that for example last week, in one week alone, there were over 3000 new or changes to towers across the US. In fact in one town in PA, over 500 towers were erected. The ONLY way to be current is to be able to acquire this information electronically…a telephone call to ATC does not do it.

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    • trevor Smith says:

      Mac: You point out that paper charts cannot fail (like batteries driving electronic charts). However, I will repeat that paper charts are not current the day after they are published. Yes they are imprinted with the “valid to” date. Unfortunately, if there is a runway closure two days after chart printing, there is information on that chart that is incorrect. Sure this is solved hopefully with the pilot briefing. This all goes away with electronic charts accompanied with obtaining the latest FAA databases which are updated every 56 days. But even that is not good enough. I don’t recall if I mentioned that my electronic charts are used by the air-medical industry and thus we also obtain the FAA Obstacle Database along with the new Weekly Contstruction Notices. Every week in those notices there are hundreds of new or changed obstacles (towers). Two weeks ago, over 3000 obstacles were added nationwide. I think the FAA is just beginning to note that paper charts just do not cut it anymore. Words are that the FAA is considering stopping the publication of paper charts and is studying the ability to go fully digital. You may wish to contact AeroNav about this.

  8. Bill P says:

    It’s good to have confirmation that we little guys aren’t required to have paper charts in the aircraft (with tiny exception noted below), especially since it confirms my general understanding and sometimes practice.

    However, since we are required to familiarize ourselves with the required information for VFR or IFR flight, the question arises — and in fact arose on my last BFR — as to whether there are any restrictions or requirements as to the sources of information we are required to consult to obtain said necessary information.

    I (a VFR only pilot) showed up for my BFR without an AFD and told my CFI I would normally obtain the airport information for an airport I’d never been to before from (I also get it from my GPS and sometimes a paper sectional, although I may not have mentioned this), at which point he asked me if was a legal source for obtaining the info. I admitted I didn’t know the answer and had just been assuming it was, to which he replied that I was wrong, stating that I was required to obtain the information from official sources such as the AFD or a sectional. I accepted that as accurate, but now your article stating that electronic sources of information are just as valid as paper ones is making wonder if it is. As you said, today we have a myriad of electronic sources for obtaining information. What do you say, Mac? Are we VFR and/or IFR pilots obligated to obtain our information only from sanctioned sources? If so, which ones for which information? You could probably write an article on that.

    Now, one tiny exception to your comment about the FAR’s being silent with respect to the need for charts in the aircraft, just so pilots are aware of it: The FAA’s online course about operations in the Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA) of New York City says: “If you plan to operate in either the Hudson River Exclusion or the East River Exclusion, 14 CFR 93.351 requires that you … Have a current New York TAC and/or New York Helicopter Route Chart in the aircraft and be familiar with the information contained therein.”

    I took the FAA’s online course for operating in and around the Washington, DC SFRA and FRZ some time ago, but have never flown there and do not recall if a similar requirement exists for operations there.

    • trevor Smith says:

      Neither FAA Sectionals TACs etc or the AF/D comply with the requirements to have “current information” prior to flight. The simple reason is that the day the
      sectional and AF/D is published, they are OUT OF DATE. You must MANUALLY UPDATE those sources with current information via a flight brief or any other sources of current information. All it takes is one apt closure, tower frequency change, new obstacles (windplants et al), to make the sectional or AF/D invalid. Nor does your flight plan account for a situation where you have “all current info” for your flight path but may not have something like an airport closure for THAT airport you MAY need if fuel is low or other emergency. Guess that’s why the airlines have a pipeline to their flight centers to handle such needs…we GA pilots do not. ATC does and our only hope is that our radios work when needed. We are in the obstacles business and support the air-medical industry. I can tell you that on a DAILY BASIS, hundreds of towers are added EVERY DAY throughout the US. And air-med pilots, prior to flight MUST located every obstacle and terrain along each leg of their flight path and fly FAA specified minimums about worst case values. THAT current information we obtain directly from FAA databases every day.

  9. John Hayes says:

    FAA Advisor Circular AC 120-76B released last June addresses this very issue. It’s a slog to get through so here are the basics:
    1) If you are flying part 91 (excluding 91F or 91k) in an unpressurized airplane, you need no authorization to replace paper with an EFB in your airplane as long as the EFB does not replace any equipment or operating information required by regulations. You do need to have two operational EFBs to replace required paper charts and you can not use any maps that display aircraft position on the chart. You also need to demonstrate that the EFB will not interfere with aircraft electronic systems (it looks like this can be done with a simple test flight.)
    2) If you fly a pressurized airplane, you must demonstrate EFB reliability through decompression testing. This can be an involved and potentially expensive process.

    Do a search and you can pull up the AC and study the details for yourself. There is a lot of additional stuff covered and it’s a bit convoluted. Happy reading…

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