Do Pilots Still Use the E-6B Whiz Wheel?

By Scott Spangler on April 19th, 2010

Recently I received a release from Sporty’s Pilot Shop about its new CD or downloadable training course, Virtual Tips & Tricks for the Manual E6B. Not a week or so later I read that Sporty’s will soon have its iPhone E-6B app ready for download, joining the large number of such apps already on the market.

JW-spock-e6bWhat surprised me was not the app, but the Whiz Wheel program. Do student pilots still learn to use this amazing device, which was created just before World War II and never needs batteries? And do they continue to use it once they finish training? Does the mechanical slide-rule computer have a place in the futuristic world of computerized avionics giving all the fuel consumption and time-speed-and-distance answers as  standard readouts?

Obviously, there must be enough demand for old-school methods for Sporty’s to create the new product. But I wonder, do pilots exercise some of its more esoteric capabilities?  A reassuring visit to the National Intercollegiate Flying Association revealed that there is one group of pilots that still spin the E-6B to its limits, the students who compete in Computer Accuracy. Think you’re up to their challenge? Click the button to read the rest of this post.

At regional and national Safety and Flight Evaluation Conferences, aka Safecon, Computer Accuracy competitors run the gamut of conversions and multi-part computations in a multiple-guess exam. Here’s an example from the 2009 National Safecon (if you’re up for a whiz wheel challenge, you can find the collection of tests and answers here):

E6b-slide-rule_id While preparing to take a load of cargo to a remote back-country airstrip in the desert, you observe two steel 55-gallon drums. The freight forwarder has told you that one is completely filled with oil and that one is completely filled with AVGAS, but he can’t remember which one is which. The following questions are based on this situation:

Your destination has ordered fuel only. In an attempt to determine which drum should go, you decide to use a scale. The first drum that you try weighs 355 pounds, so you decide:
   a. that your manual flight computer has dead batteries
   b. to take the first drum that you weighed, since you are believe that it is fuel
   c. that the first barrel could not possibly be fuel
   d. that the scale has an error of 85 pounds
Just now you have noticed that there is a label on the second drum that is so faded that you can barely read it. You can make out that it says “Gross Weight 198 kg.” How much does the empty drum weigh?
   a. 25 pounds
   b . 50 pounds
   c. 75 pounds
   d. 100 pounds
5. The floor in your cargo area is only approved for a load of 50 pounds per square foot. If you put the drum on a 25-pound pallet that is 36” square, will you even be able to take a 55-gallon drum of fuel?
   a. Yes, and there is a 5% safety margin.
   b. Yes, and you have 8 pounds per square foot to spare.
   c. No, you cannot take the fuel because the floor load is exceeded
   d. No, and the floor load limit is exceeded by 16 pounds per square foot.

Or how about this one:

17. If the OAT gauge reads -4 degrees F and you are at 172 knots indicated while cruising at 5000 feet, what is the true airspeed if you know that your thermometer always reads 6 degrees F warmer than the OAT actually is?
   a. 176 knots
   b. 178 knots
   c. 182 knots
   d. 189 knots

My E-6B resides in my desk drawer, and I use it occasionally to work the airplane math in a story. But mostly it’s a reminder of friend, Philip Dalton “Flip” Smith, the  nephew of Naval Reserve aviator Lt. Philip Dalton  who invented the E-6B in the late 1930s. So where is your E6B, and do you remember how to use it? – Scott Spangler


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8 Responses to “Do Pilots Still Use the E-6B Whiz Wheel?”

  1. Bill P Says:

    I prefer the CR-3 ( manual flight computer over the E-6B due to its compact size. It works better for high speed functions, and I also find the wind computation side a little better.

    It’s the one that is in my flight bag whenever I fly (A-330). Now granted, I don’t use it much as the airplane already calculates TAS, wind, and just about anything else I want to know. But 30 years after my initial purchase, I still haven’t had to feed it any batteries!

    According to the comments posted on Sporty’s for this item, it seems that Jeppesen has gotten cheap and no longer includes a paper manual with the computer (Come on guys, for $25 you can throw in the instruction book). It is now only available on line (and it gets poor reviews at that).

  2. Joe d'Eon Says:

    I keep my old wiz-wheel up on a shelf to remind me of what life was like before all the cool magic stuff. My old notes are written on the case, and I think I could figure out how to use it if I really had to. But I would be really slow!

  3. LeRoy Young Says:

    I used the E-6B but that was 20 + years ago when I was a private pilot.

  4. Jonathan Heckman Says:

    I find the E6-B very useful for crosswind components / wind angle-velocity related problems. Other than that, I am loyal to my electronic version of the device. As a student pilot, I find the wheel intimidating and prefer to punch in the numbers – like a calculator (something I’m used to). As a fairly young pilot, most of the pilots in my generation prefer the electronic version.

  5. Danny V Says:

    I use it religiously even though I’ve had a couple of instructors ask me if I have an electronic one.

    So far in my flying (private level) I have not found a need for an electronic one. I guess it would speed up the preflight planning but with the E6B I actually have to think rather than punch numbers into the calculator.

  6. Erik F. Says:

    I still have my E6B from when I did my PPL 10 years ago. Keep it around my desk for flight planning use as I work in Operations and Dispatch. Even used the Wind side for a couple Physics assignments involving vector addition.

    Great tool, always handy to have around!

  7. Linz Says:

    I’m amazed at the amount of comments that have been placed around the Internet space about that they are “dated” instruments, that they are “Pre-WWII”, and that they belong in the same place as conventional slide rules, abacuses, and sextants (for the younger generation, these were navigation tools used on ships – they weren’t sex toys (AFAIK)).

    While there is the computer technology such as RNAV and GNAV, electronic flight computers that (hey surprise) perform the same calculations that an E6B does, yeah with greater accuracy (bring on the accuracy debate), the E6B does bring in the appreciation of how these more advanced systems work (as well as giving you something to fall back on should newer technology fail).

    I personally struggle with the fact that schools aren’t teaching things like mental arithmetic anymore, and while computers doing our computational tasks for us on a daily basis with greater accuracy and speed, people are not willing to learn the basics of doing computational skills using their brains, a basic instrument when it gets a bit more complex, and common sense.

  8. Peter Dean Says:

    well I did my PPL in 1973, let it lapse in the mid 80s, recently learnt to fly a gyroplane, it was time for my qualifiing x country so out came the whizz wheel, I thought I would be laughed at but to my surprise everyone seemed just to rely on GPS checking their line on a map, with virtually no other planning. Those arround were very interested in my planning and some asked where they could buy a whizz wheel! flying by map and Plog I used the GPS to check and confirm in flight. These traditional skills are far from dead or old habits die hard

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