Sectional Aeronautical Charts are a primary flight tool that allows us hop in an airplane, take off and fly cross-country, literally by looking out the window.  No VOR, GPS or other fancy navigation device required.  But this only works if the landscape we see outside matches features on the chart.  When significant changes on the landscape take place, we need to let the chart makers know, so they can update the charts—which they are happy to do.

What is a chart anyway?
A flight chart is a complex compilation of data and information pulled from a variety of sources, arranged in a spatial pattern that creates a scale model of the earth’s surface.  We are often focused on aviation specific information, such as radio frequencies, airspace boundaries, airport runway lengths and the like, and take the underlying terrain features for granted.  Yet one of the charts more powerful uses is enabling us—with appropriate training—to look at this two-dimensional image to establish our current position, find the next terrain feature along the route, and fly to it. Repeating this process can take us hundreds of miles, over places we have never laid eyes on before. All with no GPS or other electronic navigation or ATC controller.

Today, many pilots are using a GPS for primary navigation (myself included) and using the terrain features as a secondary confirmation.  When the electrical system fails, or GPS quits, having an accurate chart—and knowing how to read it—is pretty important.  As we fly, we need to be on the lookout for details that are misplaced, or have changed.  Here is an example of how that can work.

Case Study
Last summer a pilot from San Diego flew his Grumman Tiger to Alaska and proceeded to tour the state.  His extensive trip, over 23 days, took him to many different areas.  When departing Valdez, he noted that a major terrain feature, the Columbia Glacier, looked considerably different than depicted on the Anchorage Sectional.  Over the past several decades, this glacier has undergone a massive retreat, leaving the terminus some 10 miles from its former location.  The difference was enough that when the pilot tried to confirm his position, which the chart still showed as the main body of the glacier, he was actually over open water–causing him temporarily to doubt his true location.

How to report an error
The FAA welcomes reports of chart errors.  Pilots are invited to communicate this information by phone, email, snail mail or web form.  Paper copies (yes, Sectionals are still available on that media), have a text box on the chart margin labeled “Reporting Chart Errors.”  Electronic chart users may have to work harder.  Some providers, such as SkyVector.com, give an option to display a selected chart (in this case the Anchorage Sectional) that shows the chart margin notes, legend and map symbols.  Others may not display the map “collar” so head to the FAA’s website http://faa.gov/go/ais. A link on that page is labeled “Chart Discrepancy” on the left margin, and describes multiple ways to report charting errors.

Text block found on printed, and some electronic versions of Sectionals telling how to report charting errors.

In this instance, after the trip, the pilot emailed the FAA a detailed description of the location and nature of the discrepancy. He received a reply the same day, with a follow-up confirmation a couple days later. In past years, the Charting folks might have asked for oblique photos to help “source” the change. Today they are often able to pull up satellite imagery to adequately document the change and revise the chart. The result in this case: the November 7, 2017 edition of the Anchorage Sectional was issued with a revised depiction of the Columbia Glacier.

Before (left) and after revision of the Anchorage Sectional, over Columbia Bay, showing the retreat of the Columbia Glacier in Southcentral Alaska.

You can help
Whether using printed or electronic charts, if you observe a problem on a flight chart, please take the few minutes to report the error.  The misplaced power line, changed river channel, or other feature you observe in good VFR weather, may only be a momentary source of confusion. But to the next pilot trying to get through under marginal conditions, it could be life threatening.  Do your part to help keep these almost magical flight tools up to date!