Plane & Pilot
Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Google Earth: The Ultimate Preflight Tool

How to view 3D depictions of sectional charts with real-time weather and much more!

google earthTo this day, I can remember a rather “interesting” experience that occurred on a long solo cross-country while I was pursuing my private pilot license (almost 20 years ago). The time to my last waypoint, the destination airport, had expired, yet the field was nowhere in sight. After a few moments of panic and rechecking of numbers, I looked down, and (aha!) there it was.
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A 3D building view of the Las Vegas Strip.
Another neat feature: 3D terrain is built into the sectional overlay. Type “Red Lodge” into the “Fly To” box. Zoom out a little bit, and be sure that “Terrain” is selected in “Layers.” Take a look to the west while tilting your eye altitude down to check out the surrounding mountains. Welcome to Montana! Can you imagine flying into this airport at night for the first time without looking at it from this perspective? Cycle between the sectional and Google Earth to gain even more perspective. Of course, the use of Google Earth to evaluate terrain shouldn’t be limited to the immediate terminal area or restricted to VFR flights. Want to know why a departure procedure calls for a particular climb gradient? Check it out on Google Earth. Why are minimum IFR altitudes so high along a particular route? Ask Google Earth for some help.

And just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, Google Earth has yet another surprise. See where it says “Weather” under “Layers”? Click on it. If you expand the menu (hit the box with the plus on it), you can select to display weather conditions, satellite views and radar returns. Of course, this is overlaid on not only Google Earth, but also on the sectional chart, if you so desire. Pick somewhere rainy, and try it out. Zoom in on the location, select the appropriate sectional and call up the weather overlay. You’ll probably never fly without it again!

There’s little doubt that Google Earth can be of great assistance in the flight-planning process. It’s an invaluable tool to use when choosing a suitable route because it helps you find reasonable checkpoints. It can also keep you out of trouble with terrain in all types of operations. And it makes finding airports a cinch. All it takes is a few minutes of downloading to arm yourself with one of the most powerful flight-planning tools available. Best of all, if you use Google Earth, you’ll be one of the few pilots at the hangar who doesn’t have an embarrassing “getting lost” story to tell.

Texting Google

Along with Google Earth, search functions and Gmail, here’s another cool feature that Google offers. You can get METAR information sent as a text message to your cell phone by texting “metar” followed by the ICAO airport code (for example, “metar KSMO,” for Santa Monica Municipal Airport in Santa Monica, Calif.) to 466453 (“GOOGLE”). The system also offers other useful information such as weather, airline flight status or even directions for once you’ve landed at a new destination. Full details are at


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