Eye of Experience #1:
A Lost Art?

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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.

Eye Of ExperienceSince 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 even praise.

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.

A Lost Art

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.

It Was Simpler Back Then

ChampFormerly, 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.

Get Your Head Out of the Cockpit

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.

Old Cessna 172Before 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 for simplicity?

You're Missing a Lot

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 ambulance work.)

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.

Where Are We?

VFR from a Katana cockpitUnfortunately, 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 way—keep an eye out!