On the Basics ...
GUEST EDITORIAL. Captain Fred Moore, an 18,000-hour veteran who flies 747s and Hercules in all parts of the world from Alaska to Antarctica for Southern Air Transport, expresses his alarm at that young pilots who are entering the world of aviation in the age of FMCs and satnav aren't learning the basics of navigating by pilotage, wet compass, ADF and VOR — and many older pilots are rapidly losing those skills as well. Moore explains why he believes these basic navigation skills are essential, and why today's headlong rush to make GPS the sole means of air navigation is sheer lunacy.
As a pilot of 38 years experience, I have watched various navigation systems of varying degrees of reliability come and go. The trend in general aviation during recent years has been for everyone to jump on the GPS bandwagon. Hundreds of millions have been spent to install GPS receivers in aircraft of all types, worldwide. It's a great system. It is not, however, the only system.
I have become increasingly concerned by what appears to be an alarming tendency among new and upcoming pilots to whine about learning basic navigation. They seem to wonder why, if this system which provides precise R-nav and V-nav information is now on the scene, do they have to learn such bothersome techniques as VOR, ADF, pilotage, and dead reckoning?
Even Phil Boyer, president of AOPA, had the temerity to pen an AOPA PILOT editorial last year complaining that his wife, who was undergoing student pilot training at the time, was being required to learn the difference between true and magnetic north, and how to orient herself using an antiquated and obsolete VOR receiver. After all, one just has to turn on the GPS, allow it to locate itself, punch in the destination airport identifier, and follow the yellow brick road!
GPS is not a navigation panacea, as many experienced aviators are learning. However, many in general aviation whoshould know better are leading new and impressionable airmen to believe that it is.
"Reliance on satellites for navigation, communications or surveillance has the potential for vastly increased delay or total shutdown of the ATC system," former FAA Administrator Langhorne Bond told the Air Traffic Control Association's annual meeting recently in Washington, D.C. Bond went on delineate the various reasons that current VOR/DME and ILS technologies will continue to be utilized. Among them he mentioned the potential for GPS signal jamming, sunspot-generated signal degradation, satellite destruction by hostile sources, and the fact that only one of the four ground stations controlling the GPS satellites is located in the United States.
I read a wide variety of aviation publications. I have noted disparaging comments originating from a number of pilots concerning the validity of non-directional beacon supported navigation, particularly ADF approaches. This disturbs me deeply. ADF is one of the tried and true navigational systems and is used extensively as a primary enroute and terminal area navigation aid on a world-wide basis.
I currently fly a Boeing 747-200F. I work for a cargo airline that contracts its services to other airlines and independent companies worldwide. We have two ancient, non-digital ADF receivers in the 747 that I fly primarily, and we use them extensively, particularly when flying the Zipaquira One SID out of Bogota, Colombia. Night. Mountains. Lousy air traffic control. Bad weather. We pay very close attention to tuning and identifying those four NDB's when climbing out of Bogota at our maximum runway-limited takeoff gross weight. Trust me on this.
Prior to checking out in the 747, I flew the civilian version of the Lockheed Hercules, the L-382. The Herc is a special-purpose aircraft. Originally designed by Lockheed as a military assault transport, the civilian derivative is the world's greatest bush plane. I have landed it on road sections, taxi strips, and runways carved by machete-wielding tribesmen out of the African bush. I have landed it repeatedly on a one-way dirt strip in the central highlands of Papua New Guinea, after having shot an NDB/DME approach through a thick stratus layer into a valley carved by one of the world's most scenic lakes. NDB/DME, you ask? In PNG, that's what they use to let down into blind valleys at night. Better know those ADF procedures, folks.
During the eight years that I flew the Hercules, my company, Southern Air Transport, was extensively involved in various African relief operations sponsored by several international relief organizations. Among the many were The International Committee of the Red Cross, Caritas, UNOSOM, UNDRO, the the Lutheran World Foundation, and Medicines Sans Frontières. I had many opportunities, most assuredly not always-welcomed opportunities, to return to the basics.
I used GPS on a limited basis in Africa a few years back while flying Lockheed Hercs on relief missions, particularly in the southern Sudan. We were required to locate bush strips or drop zones near small villages in what may be described as a "trackless waste" where pilotage was difficult due to the similarity of many terrain features and the additional problem of potentially being hit by ground fire if we flew too low. We used a handheld Garmin GPS receiver to supplement the Omega systems that were installed in the Hercs at the time, because Omega was occasionally incredibly inaccurate.
In this day and time of positive control, Class A & B airspace, and the ubiquitous transponder, it seems to me that much of the freedom has disappeared from flying. That does not negate, however, what I feel to be the absolute necessity of initially learning the basics of all forms of navigation when acquiring the skills that will set the groundwork for a lifetime career in aviation.
Admittedly, we no longer have to fly along reading the signs on water tanks and following railroads to locate a small grass strip out in the hinterlands. I often did that as a kid flying around the northern Gulf of Mexico. It was fun, and it insured that I would have to really work hard at getting lost. (Which I occasionally did, anyway.)
All those years ago I soloed July 4th, 1959 at Bates Field in Mobile, Alabama at age 16 I never contemplated that I would find myself some thirty-three years later trying to read a GNC chart while ensconced in the command seat of a Lockheed Hercules, eighteen thousand feet over southern Angola, looking for the town of Ongiva. Problem was, I had two Omega receivers in the airplane, and they had each led me to a different airport. Two Omegas; two airports; two towns.
Why not just get a VOR fix? What's a VOR? You won't find them in a country that has suffered from twenty years of civil war, where "rebels" held half the countryside, and where, in those days, the only functioning instrument approach procedure in the entire country was an ADF approach into Luanda that worked, most of the time, when the power was on.
So, which airport was Ongiva? I had no way of knowing precisely, based on the information that the Red Cross Project Manager had given me. He'd said something like, "Just go on down there. You'll figure it out." This was Africa, not Ohio, and this was normal procedure. If you can read a map, find the neighborhood and nobody shoots at you, you are very likely in the right place.
Had I had a functional GPS in the cockpit, it would have simplified the matter tremendously, assuming that it hadn't shorted out because it was packed with West African dust, assuming that no one in the area was jamming the signal, assuming that the electrical bus powering it hadn't popped all three circuit breakers, or assuming that no one had stolen it the night before.
So, all those years ago when my first flight instructor, Walker Taylor, insisted that I learn how to successfully arrive at Point B without using anything but a compass, a sectional chart, and a watch, he insured that I could pretty much be assured of successfully locating Ongiva, Angola, thirty-three years down the road. And I did.
Almost every wide-eyed kid who starts out these days learning to fly hopes that he or she will end up in the business end of a high-tech near-mach cruiser, staying at the best hotels, flying the hot international routes, visiting Paris, Rome, London, Buenas Aires and Tokyo.
Truth is, many things happen and we aren't all Flag Carrier material. Many of us end up out in the toolies in some third-world "country" flying marginally-maintained aircraft, trying to avoid hostile ground fire, malaria, dengue fever, dysentery, wild-eyed sixteen-year-old Somali machine gunners, and occasionally shooing green mambas and camel spiders out of our tents while keeping a weather eye out for the wayward hyena.
I suppose that in a perfect world, knowing the difference between true and magnetic north won't matter much. But down the bumpy road of life, there are many potholes. There may come a day in the distant future when the ability to remember the basics and shoot a fixed-card NDB approach to minimums, or read a GNC chart and figure out just what that squiggly little line that bisects that river bed at the blown suspension bridge means, might just save your behind.
Southern Air Transport