I would very much like to become an airline pilot however maths has never been my strongest subject. Are most pilots mathematically adept or can I get away with being average?

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    $\begingroup$ Nowadays the only fields that really require good knowledge of math is mathematics. Everything else has computers do the calculations, meaning you only need 'normal' math abilities. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 30, 2016 at 5:39
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    $\begingroup$ Today, most calculation work has been taken over by clever instruments. It cant' hurt, though, to develop the ability to quickly check if the result looks reasonable. But this is more experience than innate ability. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 30, 2016 at 6:52
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    $\begingroup$ There is always tremendous confusion between mathematics and just arithmetic. I'm guessing that sadly the OP means they are just plain bad at ordinary daily arithmetic. $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Commented Oct 30, 2016 at 12:57
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidGrinberg Mathmatics has almost nothing to do with calculations and many areas require lots of it: physics, computer science, anything concerning itself with statistics, which is almost every form of science. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 30, 2016 at 13:25
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidGrinberg this is a dangerous misconception. But yes this is way of topic $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 30, 2016 at 19:26

5 Answers 5


In short, no.

To quote Patrick Smith, veteran pilot and author of Cockpit Confidential and the blog "Ask the Pilot,"

There's a lingering assumption that airline pilots are required to demonstrate some sort of Newtonian genius before every takeoff- a vestige, maybe, from the days when airmen carried slide rules and practiced celestial navigation... The basics are what pilots encounter. Routine arrival assignments require some quickie mental arithmetic.

So basically, it doesn't involve super complex math. You need to be able to do some moderate arithmetic and geometry, but nothing so complex that it can't be done, as Smith says, on

my $6.95 calculator from CVS- the one flight-bag accessory more indispensable than an emergency checklist, aircraft deicing guide, or a bag of ramen noodles.

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    $\begingroup$ Yep. Like accounting, you need a firm grounding in the basics, mostly high school stuff. If your math skills are terrible, flying is probably not for you, but if you can compute a fuel ratio, use a compass, and understand basic trig functions you will be fine. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 29, 2016 at 22:11
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    $\begingroup$ One thing I'd note is that "Basic arithmetic and geometry" could be argued to be above average $\endgroup$
    – Jon Story
    Commented Oct 29, 2016 at 23:51
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    $\begingroup$ the problem is: "compute a fuel ratio, use a compass, and understand basic trig functions". In the USA, 99% of people would describe that skillset as: "Geeky!" "Top Expert!" "Incredibly good at mathematics!" "The genius kid". $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Commented Oct 30, 2016 at 12:58

Most people I've encountered who consider themselves "mathematically challenged" are stymied by the word "Mathematics" yet will easily calculate change on a purchase, or divide up a bill between diners. At worst, you've probably got a pretty detailed calculator on your phone!

When it comes to flying, it doesn't get much more complex than addition, subtraction multiplication and division for a very long while. The sort of maths you will need is "I'm flying at 95 Knots for 190 Nautical Miles, how long will this take me?" - division. or "I'm flying for 30 minutes and I'll burn 0.2L fuel per hour, how much fuel will I use" - multiplication. To labour a point - "my course is 120 degrees, but my wind correction angle is +3 degrees, what heading should I fly" - er, addition.

That final example is pertinent, there is an element of calculating some degrees of wind correction which is some proper trigonometry! Luckily you have tools (apps, slide rules) to calculate this part for you. As long as you understand what the app/calculator/slide rule is telling you in principal then you can use the tools at your disposal.

Beyond basic flying, yes, there is an element of more advanced mathematics. But maths is just like climbing stairs - one step at a time. You will find some "math" sort of stuff on exams later on.

Anecdotally, I have a good friend who is an airline pilot and he would be the first to admit he's not the best at the maths part of it. There you go.

  • $\begingroup$ The trouble is: what you describe in para 1 (change etc), it's unlikely 20% of adults in the US can do that. Para 2, I doubt 5% of adults in the US can do that. Para 3, hardly anyone can do that, other than a few professionals (and kids in junior high who barely-memorize-with-no-understanding what sin/cos is.) $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Commented Oct 30, 2016 at 13:02

Here are the sort of things you do frequently as a pilot that involve "Math" or even just "numbers":

The air traffic controller tells you, "One seven charlie, turn left three zero degrees, climb and maintain four thousand, squawk five seven three one." If you are dyslexic, you might have problems remembering this string of numbers until you can use them. But if your dyslexia is very mild, un-diagnosed, and not really noticeable, you probably can write the numbers down quickly on a notepad until you have time to accurately type them into your instruments. Keep in mind that you are bouncing around in turbulence and tryng to hand-fly an airplane while you are doing this.

Your aircraft takes a bird strike while you are on the runway in the takeoff roll. You immediately need to know if your airspeed (a number) is high enough for you to continue to climb with one engine; or whether you should shut everything down and stand on the brakes. A commerical pilot will need to memorize about ten of these types of numbers, for every airplane that they flies, so that they can use them immediately in an emergency situation. Captain Sully Sullenberger had to know instantly what his "best angle of glide speed" was when his engines failed, to glide as far as possible. This is not "math" but it is memorization and quick recall of a number. I personally do not like the newer glass-panel airspeed indicators because they are mostly just a number, not a clock-like needle on a dial. With a needle on a dial (steam-gauge instrument), you don't really have to remember a number, you can just remember a position--where the needle on the dial is happy, and where it means danger. Even a chimp can remember what territory is safe, and what territory is dangerous. And when our brain gets oxygen deprived during emergency situations, we become chimps. Numbers become garbage.

Here is more math: You are given all the weights and positions (inches from a line on the fuselage) of people, luggage, and fuel. You must do some arithmetic that adds some of these numbers and multiplies others, coming up with the placement of a dot on a chart (a weight and balance chart). If the dot is too high, the airplane is too heavy; if it is too far right, the airplane is loaded too far aft. This is basic arithmetic and use of a graph. And after you do it for a test manually, a computer does it for you always after that in real life.

So basically, if you can not memorize ten numbers and recall them quickly, and if you are bad at simple arithmetic story problems and basic graphing, they you will have trouble as a pilot. But you do not need to know calculus, geometry, or advanced algebra.

However, I do not know your situation if you are overseas. In the United States, you can get a private pilots license for less than the cost of a semester of college, and then build up your hours as a basic flight instructor. Overseas, there may be more obstacles, in the way of aptitude testing, that I am not aware of the in the United States.

  • $\begingroup$ I'd have to check back what the exact accident was, but those needles (plural) are a known risk. The problem is that 9000 feet looks like "almost 10.000 feet plus 9000 feet" because multiple needles share a single dial. $\endgroup$
    – MSalters
    Commented Oct 31, 2016 at 7:49
  • $\begingroup$ @MSalters Though that isn't really an unsolvable problem. Just make the small-steps needle move continuously, and the large-steps needle move in quantized steps. That way it would become clear if you are looking at e.g. 0+9k or 10k+9k. Not asking why this isn't being done (that would be a separate question, and I suspect the answer would have a lot to do with plain old manufacturer inertia, warranted or otherwise), merely pointing out that it could be done that way and would mitigate the issue you raise in your comment. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Oct 31, 2016 at 14:21
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling, actually, quantized steps make the problem worse, not better. It's like the clock—if the small hand moves continuously, five-to-twelve is unambiguous. But if the small hand jumped from 11 to 12 at once, then is it 5-to-11, or 5-to-12? Did it jump already or not? $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Commented Oct 31, 2016 at 20:36

Probably the most essential thing, based on 30 years experince, is the ability to recover your attention, situational awareness and invoke a personal calmness so that you can use what you do have between your ears - oh - and quickly, remember you are in a fast moving machine. Getting preoccupied and indecisive wastes precious time and will kill you, maybe others. So learn attention recovery before you start worrying about simple arithmetic. (Check out the pilots test on the Psyfactors website to see if you are there or what you need to be there.). It will also help you with the arithmetic.


I actually am a licensed commercial pilot, so I can comment.

  • you need to be comfortable doing simple calculations, like estimating time
  • you need to be able to memorize a fair amount, including the navaid frequencies
  • you need to be healthy and able to reach all the switches and rotate your neck
  • you need to be able to tolerate sleep disruptions
  • you need to be able to focus and have confidence in your training and abilities.

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