The E6B Flight Computer: What Is It?

Any experienced pilot is familiar with the E6B flight computer and has a strong opinion about its usefulness. Serving as an early aviation tool, some pilots standy by its utility, while others think it is a simple relic of the past. Regardless, licensed pilots are expected to know how to use an E6B computer.

Generally, E6B flight computers are usually made from aluminum for its durability, but cheaper alternatives are also available, those of which are made from plastic or cardboard. Developed in the 1930s by Naval Lt. Philip Dalton, an E6B flight computer is defined as a circular slide rule utilized in aviation and one of the first analog calculating devices developed in the 21st century.

For further context, a slide rule used to be a standard calculating device before the onset of electronic calculators. Using moving parts with standardized sets of graduated markings, slide rules were a means of carrying out complex calculations quickly and easily, Basic slide rules for multiplication and division problems were handy in nearly every field, but as soon as advanced versions were built, quadratic equations, exponents, logarithms, and trigonometric functions could be also be solved.

The biggest difference between an E6B and a standard slide rule is that the former has a “calculator side” and a “wind side,” with the calculator side being able to handle the basic aforementioned functions. As the E6B flight computer can handle a wide range of possible calculations, using one to its full potential can only be done with plenty of experience. It is worth noting that an E6B can also convert between different units of measurement.

Critical Calculations

To emphasize the value of E6B flight computers, we will cover some of the most critical calculations it can perform.

Time, Speed, and Distance

The most basic calculations that the E6B flight computer carries out involve the relationship between time, speed, and distance. Usually, the pilot needs to determine the speed at which they need to travel, given the distance they need to cover and the duration of the flight. This calculation is fairly simple as the pilot only needs to solve for the unknown values.

Fuel Consumption

A pilot is able to calculate the volume of fuel that will be used for a flight, provided that they have the duration of the flight and the aircraft’s fuel consumption rate.

Radius of Action

The radius of action refers to the maximum distance or time that an aircraft can travel beyond which it cannot return to its starting point. This calculation requires the aircraft’s fuel endurance and its possible ground speed values for both outbound and inbound legs.

Ground Speed and Wind Correction Angle

To determine these values, you need true airspeed, wind direction, wind velocity, and your true course. This information is made available through sectional charts, winds aloft forecasts, and the aircraft’s speed indicator. To carry out the actual calculation, you need the rotating mechanisms of the E6B flight computer.

True Airspeed and Density Altitude

Your aircraft’s true airspeed is a function of its indicated airspeed and the speed or pressure of the surrounding air. A factor you must take into consideration is pressure altitude which is based on prevailing air pressure values. The pressure altitude can also be utilized to determine the density altitude of the aircraft.

Various Conversion Factors

It is important to note that the E6B flight computer allows pilots to change values across the most commonly used units, for example, converting from nautical miles to statute miles or changing between volume, weight, and temperature units. Keep in mind that consistency is key.

Are They Still Used Today?

While electronic flight computers have replaced E6Bs in most practical situations, it is still used as an instruction tool in many flight schools. In fact, many pilots will use it as a backup to their digital flight computers.


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