Remember when all it took to navigate was a sectional and a watch? You don't? Maybe you should rediscover the joys of pilotage and ded reckoning. AVweb columnist Howard Fried sounds off about one of his pet peeves: we're losing one of the most enjoyable aspects of flying, one that also happens to be a potential lifesaver when all our electronic gadgets decide they've had enough.
May 4, 1998
|About the Author ...
Howard Fried started flying with the Army Air Corps in WWII, where he
served both as a multi-engine instructor pilot and in combat piloting B-17s.
After a stint teaching sociology and on-the-air and management jobs in the
radio business after the war, he turned to teaching flying again full-time.
Over 40,000 general aviation hours later, he is still instructing
and running his own flight school. Along the way he administered over 4,000 flight tests
as a Designated Examiner until victimized by rogue FAA
He has authored two popular flying books aimed at student pilots and
instructors, Flight Test Tips and Tales and Beyond The Checkride, and a
series of audio tapes, Checkride Tips from
Flying's Eye Of The Examiner.
Since the editors of AVweb
on this great new medium have been gracious enough to permit me to use this space to write
anything I please (so long as it is in reasonably good taste), I intend to take full
advantage of their kind offer. The freedom to speak my mind is absolutely wonderful! Since
my writing has often been quite controversial, I welcome reader comments, criticism, and
Because of my experience of having administered some four thousand certification flight
tests in a career as a Designated Pilot Examiner, spanning a period of seventeen years,
the emphasis here will be on flight training and checkrides, although we will certainly
not be limited to that subject. I have devoted almost my entire adult life to aviation
education and the certification process and I will be airing some of my pet peeves
regarding flight training from time to time. In fact, one of these is the subject of this
first AVweb column.
The other day a startling thread appeared in the Aviation Forum on AOL. In relating an
adventure, someone wrote that having lost his navigation radios he was forced, while
flying IFR in IMC, to use ded reckoning (that's correct, "ded," not
"dead" - the term is derived from "deduced reckoning") for navigation.
How's that for a complex sentence, huh?
The immediate response from several others was, "How could you possibly navigate
by ded reckoning without being able to see landmarks?" This, of course, demonstrated
a complete misunderstanding of both Ded Reckoning and Pilotage. I wonder
just how those people who believe that visual contact with landmarks is necessary for ded
reckoning think we got along in IFR prior to the advent of VORs, DME, Loran C, GPS, and
all the other wonderful stuff we have now? We used time and speed to compute distance, and
we navigated by "flying the beam," the aural, four course radio range, the good
old Adcock Range, which put out four course signals which got stronger as we came closer
to the station. And let me tell you, it was a real task to do this while struggling to
keep the airplane upright, since airplanes in those days weren't nearly as stable as
today's flying machines. Also, the task was compounded by the fact that the signal was low
frequency and subject to lots of interference from static and other signals.
Formerly, most of the time spent in primary training was devoted to teaching
the student pilot the fundamentals of manipulating the airplane around in the sky, but now
the student has so much more to learn that this phase of training has become a minor part
of all that must be mastered. Not too many years ago our primary trainers had no electric
systems. This meant that not only were there no starters and lights in and on the
airplane, but no radios of any kind, communication or navigation. Now, as well as night
flying and a smattering of instrument work, the student must master radio communication
and navigation as well. Of course, those older trainers (J3 Cubs and 7AC Champs) were
taildraggers and thus more demanding of basic pilot skills, because they were not nearly
as inherently stable as the modern trainer with its training wheel out in front and its
superior design for stability.
Many, if not most, modern pilots have no idea what that rudder is all about. They plant
their feet firmly on the floor and drive the airplane through the sky as if it were an
automobile. And, they can get away with this because the designers made the airplanes so
much more stable. If you ever get the opportunity to watch an old-timer fly straight and
level, you will see him carefully trim the aircraft out, then rest his toes lightly on the
rudder pedals, and fly hands-off.
When flying cross-country VFR, we would draw a course line on the Sectional Chart, mark
off checkpoints every ten miles or so, get established on course, and hold a compass
heading that kept us on the course line. Today's pilots learn to do this for the checkride
and then promptly forget all about this technique as they tool along following the VOR,
Loran C, GPS, etc. with their heads buried in the cockpit.
Before all these goodies came along, we would pick something out
on the ground up ahead on our course and fly to it. Before we'd get there we would have
something else selected farther along on the course. This is pilotage. We used to call
this flying by navigating treetop-to-treetop. Meanwhile, we would note the time as we
passed each checkpoint and keep track of the time to the next one while holding the
compass heading. This is ded reckoning. Thus VFR flying was a combination of the two, and
believe me, it required that the pilot pay a lot more attention to the world outside the
cockpit than most pilots do today. And, since aircraft engines weren't as dependable then
as they are now, we would always have a suitable place to put the airplane down in case of
engine failure. This was both challenging and fun. By the bye, in my aviation career I
have had three unscheduled landings in airplanes (gliders don't count). Two of 'em were
off-airport and in one case I was able to fly the airplane out again. In neither case was
there any injury or damage.
One thing that helped then, and still helps today, is the fact that the old guys who
explored and surveyed our great country back in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds
anticipated the Wright brothers and their flying machines even if they didn't realize it
at the time. They did us an enormous favor. They laid the country out in a grid. Except
where interrupted by terrain features such as hills, rivers, lakes, and so on, all the
lines on the ground run north and south and east and west. The section lines, which
describe the circumference of a square mile, and the roads all run north-south and
east-west. While flying a course and holding a heading that keeps us on course, we can
eyeball the lines on the ground and see that we maintain a constant angle as we cross
them. In fact, after gaining a bit of experience at this, we get to the point that we can
look at these section lines and judge the angle that will keep us on course. How's that
Today's VFR-only private pilot doesn't know what he or she is missing in terms of the
joy of basic cross-country flying by pilotage. I have a friend, a former student at my
flight school, who owned an L-2 (WWII military Taylorcraft equipped for air ambulance
work) with no electrical system whatever. You had to prop it to start it. This wonderful
lady made at least two solo trips from Michigan to Florida, and numerous trips from
Michigan to the mountains of North Carolina in that airplane without ever talking to
anybody. Her fuel stops entailed landing at small non-towered airports. After first
carefully checking for traffic, she would make a proper pattern entry and land. The
airplane was, of course, equipped for day VFR-only flight and when she had to lay over for
weather or overnight en route, she slept in the airplane. (Remember, it was set up for air
On those long, slow expeditions she would constantly challenge herself to fly a precise
course and to arrive at each destination within a couple of minutes of her estimated time
of arrival. I am dead certain she enjoyed her flying experience a great deal more than the
modern pilot who cranks in the lat-long coordinates of his or her destination in the GPS
or Loran C, takes off, buries his head in the cockpit, never bothering to look around
outside the airplane, and flies directly to the destination. Looking at the moving map or
CDI and not outside is also a safety hazard and another of my pet peeves, which I'll
address in a future column. I urge all pilots to try flying the way Dorothy did. Our
wonderful country offers so much beauty to be seen and enjoyed, that those who fail to
take advantage of this are missing more than they know.
Unfortunately, today's pilots
miss a great deal of this. A friend of mine, a pilot examiner, had an interesting
experience along these lines. A private applicant spent no time at all planning the cross
country task on his checkride. When the examiner asked him about this, the fellow replied
that he would simply enter the destination in his GPS (which has a complete database) and
fly direct. The examiner let him get away with this and when they started on the
cross-country trip, after flying about fifteen miles along the way, the examiner turned
the GPS (and all other navigation radios) off. The applicant instantly became hopelessly
lost! The point here is, of course, that even with all the wonderful stuff we have today,
in VFR flying it is essential that we know how to navigate by pilotage and ded reckoning.
For my next column I will let you in on a secret. I'll explain your Old Dad's
handy-dandy method of cheating on what we used to call the "written exam," but
what is now known as the "knowledge exam."
In most cases, someone else has already gained the experience you need the hard
waykeep an eye out!