Modern Navigators Are Unerring, But Also Numb To The Universe

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When I was a callow lad, private pilot ground school was interactive. It was interactive not in the sense of the Pavlovian clicking of choices on a webpage, but of having a human instructor who actually talked and answered questions. Chalk was a thing then.

One of the instructors must have been an old school oceanic navigator because during the section on basic navigation, he produced and demonstrated a sextant of the sort used by World War II-era crews to find their way across the Pacific. I remember two things about this instrument. It had a bubble and my first attempt at reducing position with it put us in Indiana, 600 miles away from where in fact we were in North Carolina.

This effort was a mere curiosity by an engaged teacher for celestial navigation, was not then a part of pilot training and half a century later, many people don’t even know what it is. Thank GPS for that, at least in part. But that instructor left with me a lifelong fascination with celestial navigation and that led me to Sextant: A Young Man's Daring Sea Voyage and the Men Who Mapped the World's Oceans, by David Ogilvy Barrie. It’s not a new work, but as a $2 Kindle edition, I couldn’t resist.

The book deals with ocean navigation and its history through the development of various instruments leading to the first sextants around 1759 or so. These instruments, along with the shipboard chronometer, revolutionized the art of navigation at sea, skills that would persist into the air age in the interim between routine transoceanic steamship travel and the jet age. Indeed, jet airliners carried sextant ports well into the era of Doppler nav, CONSOL, Loran and inertial navigation, although they were hardly more useful than a vestigial organ by then.   

In reading Barrie’s book, it’s almost shocking to realize how much modern navigation has isolated us from the most rudimentary understanding of the physical world. He describes being at sea on clear, moonless nights and seeing the vast field of stars scroll by not as anonymous winking points of light but as a half dome of guideposts as familiar as the mailbox at the end of your driveway. And of recognizing Jupiter’s rise above the horizon and knowing that the brilliant Galileo Galilei devised the means to observe its moons, Callisto, Europa and Ganymede, to determine longitude on Earth a century before the chronometer was even thought of. And of looking at Polaris, without benefit of sextant, and knowing what 43 degrees North just looks like.

Modern city life has all but erased the sight of a deep star field, much less any knowledge of its composition. If you live in the Midwest or West, stop your car on a dark remote road and you’ll know the difference. Some years ago, I went on a press tour of the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt and stood on the LSO platform facing aft, with lights doused as we waited for the jets inbound from Oceana to enter the pattern for night quals. The sky was stunningly bright and complex but I couldn’t resurrect enough my college astronomy to orient myself with confidence before it clouded up and got black dark.

With GPS in every phone, watch and camera, the urge to understand the sky is ever more suppressed. It’s not that modern navigation requires little skill, it requires no skill. A celestial navigator herding a C-54 across the Pacific the year I was born would have done a flurry of sightings to confirm that yes, the headwind actually is 105 knots. Today, the GPS puts the wind in an unblinking, unerring data field that might merit a comment by the skipper to the FO between sips of coffee, but probably not even that.

I’m not given to the plaintive sentiment of the Luddite decrying what used to be nor would I ever suggest that it ought to be again. I’m a dedicated child of the modern age and I don’t long to ride around in a 56 Chevy because I used to own one. Give me digital variable-rate suspension and an ECU any day. GPS, too.

Modern GPS navigation is the inverse analog of celestial navigation. The former is all about precise times and ranges, the latter about precise angles and times measured with an instrument and an educated eyeball. With a $400 smartphone, you can navigate yourself across 3600 miles of the tractless Pacific with ease, if you can keep it charged. Tossed off the HMS Bounty, William Bligh did the same distance with a sextant, no almanacs and only the knowledge of admiralty charts locked in his memory. Today, most of us can’t find the next exit without our little electronic buddies.

It’s a good thing that anyone can do it now with the mere push of a few buttons and achieve accuracy Bligh couldn’t have dreamed of. The guidance is not only accurate, but unerring and nearly as reliable as the sun and stars the ancients counted on. And that makes the modern human navigator more accurate, more reliable and utterly unerring. But also quite a bit disconnected and just not quite as smart. Maybe 100 years from now, if we haven’t reduced the planet to an ash-blown cinder, some writer will long for the day when the GPS actually had buttons rather a direct neuron link to the brain.

WALL-E, here we come.   

Comments (13)


You missed the nostalgia of using ADF receivers to navigate using AM broadcasts, and hearing ukele music while approaching HNL. :)

More seriously, the first thing student pilots had to learn was to not plot a straight line across any of the Hawaiian islands - that brown area is a mountain, usually steeper than available climb rate.

I imagine that has only gotten worse with GPS adoption.

Posted by: James Briggs | November 22, 2018 6:28 PM    Report this comment

My first job in the USAF back in the late 60's was the ASQ-42 bomb/nav set on the B-58A Hustler. In order to do the task of taking out targets, first ya had to GET there. That was the nav part. The school for it was so complex that only people who had worked the B-52 could later apply for the special assignment. At the end in 1969, they decided to run a test and take six young honor grads of the B-52 school directly to B-58 field training. I was among them. They wanted to know if we could hack the program. We did but the airplane was phased out right when we finished.

All bomb/nav types had to memorize the navigation equations for the electronic analog systems which consisted of synchros and servos, control transformers, gears, shafts and all manner of circuitry to figure out where the thing was from inertial inputs as augmented by an automated astro tracker and radar corrections put in by the navigator. I remember that as the thing approached the poles, the systems became overwhelmed by longitude changes so it compensated by rotating the earth by 90 degrees electronically. Back on the B-52 later, individual amplifiers the size of beer cans mounted in cooling racks handled similar small parts of the nav tasks. I specialized in the terrain avoidance computer which was a huge box that kept B-52's from CFIT using analog techniques and tiny little acorn tubes moving signals around.

I have always laughed and said that you could take all that stuff and replace it with a $100 portable GPS and a laptop these days. The Aera660 I bought last year never ceases to amaze me. And all this happened in less than 50 years.

I guess when they phased out all those little white flight service stations with teletype machines lining a wall covered by charts, the end was in sight

Good read. You musta been bored after your turkey?

Posted by: Larry Stencel | November 22, 2018 10:18 PM    Report this comment

Everything rounds itself out, eventually. W.C. Fields

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 23, 2018 12:19 AM    Report this comment

Today's students are so accustomed to smart-phone travel guidance, that their only brief stumbling block to aerial "navigation" is the absence of roads. Not to fear - there's a handy magenta line in "an app for that." Sigh.....

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | November 23, 2018 4:12 AM    Report this comment

Dear Paul,

First let me tell you that I really love your pieces, are they're always grounded in common sense which is a sorely lacking commodity these days.

You say that "With GPS in every phone, watch and camera, the urge to understand the sky is ever more suppressed". Well, I'd say yes and no. Actually, you can download a number of apps that will give you a real time map of the sky in augmented reality (the one I use is Goskywatch, but there are others), which are really bluffing and extraordinarily informative.

Personally I rediscovered the skies with this app, and it's always a joy to watch the planets, well- and less well-known stars and constellations, even when they're below the horizon! I think anyone, and particularly any person interested in our broader environment, should spend some time with one of these apps.

Keep on flyin' !


Posted by: Roger Politis | November 23, 2018 9:22 AM    Report this comment

Paul, I really like your (or Barrie's) analogy of the stars being like a "half dome of guideposts as familiar as the mailbox at the end of your driveway". Although I've never used a sextant, I learned a good many of these constellations as a scout and they stay with me even today. It's one of the few things that hasn't changed in my world.

I can be in the window seat of a night flight 767, or an outdoor cocktail party, it doesn't matter; I look up and there they are; unchanged and just like decades ago when I was a child. You can get a feel of the seasons by them, and a good feel for your latitude and general orientation. I remember the first time I visited the Caribbean and was astonished to see Scorpio so high in the sky, with its glorious J-hook tail completely visible and not buried in the treeline. That's what 18 N looks like.

Posted by: A Richie | November 23, 2018 9:30 AM    Report this comment

"their only brief stumbling block to aerial "navigation" is the absence of roads."

My Aera shows the roads (with road names) quite nicely.

The stumbling block, is actually getting someone just to give you their address.
When my Father-in-law moved, my wife and I went down for a Christmas visit:

Me: "We're on our way, what's your new address?"
FIL: "Well, you catch RT.4 at the 236 intersection and head north.."
Me: "Sure, but what's your address?"
FIL: "Then you head north for about a mile and a half-"
Me: (Giving up and pretending to write everything down with pencil and paper) Uh huh, yep. Now that's the yellow house? With the red mailbox? Take a right. Now, that's 3 cars up on blocks, not four? OK. Yep.

10 Minutes later-

FIL: "You got that all down?"
Me: "Yep; Hey we want to send you a Christmas card...What's your mailing address? Ok Thanks, traffic is light for the next 285 miles, weather is clear and we'll be there in 5 hours, 6 minutes and 14 seconds, call it 5-and-a half-hours with a gas stop...see you then."

Posted by: Robert Ore | November 23, 2018 9:53 AM    Report this comment

Richie ... just think ... you're having a cocktail, looking up and THEN you realize the light you're seeing left wherever thousands of years ago -- or more -- SO ... you take another drink in order to better contemplate it all. Someone with a strong telescope on a planet 20 million light years away would see dinosaurs clomping around earth. Hard to wrap your arms around all of that.

Paul got me to thinking about the B-58 bomb/nav set so I did some research. The astrotracker was the KS-59 Star Tracker which provided heading info to the system. I remember it somehow worked in full sunlight and also used the sun as a reference. The APN-113 Doppler radar provided ground and wind speeds and the radar provided updates from known points as well as for the bombing part of the set to determine release points. Anyone working that career field had to be able to lift 75 pound LRU's -- there were a lot of 'em -- and more than half the airplane was filled with the stuff. Amazing juxtaposition from today.

I still wanna know how the Mayans figured all of this stuff out. Their chronometer must have been off because the world didn't end in 2012 ??

Posted by: Larry Stencel | November 23, 2018 11:44 AM    Report this comment

GREAT article Paul!
Technology is fine but has turned a lot of people into morons

I have fond memories of working out
the solution to finding one's position at sea
using the stars and a sextant as you described above
this was one of the 100 great elementary problems
in Heinrich Dorrie's great book

Also, it was very refreshing to fly my 1942 L-4B (piper cub)
the 524 miles down to the Fort Henry, OK airshow on Sept 1st
using only sectionals and the seat of my pant


Posted by: David Ahrens | November 23, 2018 2:09 PM    Report this comment

The Mayan scientist that configured their calendar had a mild case of dyscalculia. He meant 2021. He sends his apologies.

On GPS Nav gadgets and apps. We are preparing to be freed from external controls. Ask YARS.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 23, 2018 3:25 PM    Report this comment

Oh geez ... we only have 3 years to go, RAF ... why equip for ADS-B? We won't need it where we're going. Not only THAT, but now I'm reading that ADS-C is coming next.

One method of navigation that no one has EVER been able to adequately explain to me is ... pressure navigation. Any old USAF nav's Out there?

Posted by: Larry Stencel | November 23, 2018 7:24 PM    Report this comment


The way pressure nav was explained to me - flying toward low pressure you'll see a left wind and drift right; flying toward a high, a right wind and drift to the left. If you see your departure and destination atmospheric pressures are going to be quite close, you can fly a straight heading with no wind correction and the countervailing left and right drifts created by the high and low pressure zones flown through will cancel each other.

I don't know whether it works or not. I can't hold a heading.

Posted by: kim hunter | November 24, 2018 12:17 AM    Report this comment

LOL Kim.. I know the feeling! And Paul, I continue to enjoy your insightful and well written commentaries -- hope that you enjoyed a pleasant turkey day and all the best for the upcoming holiday season.

Posted by: ANDREW PATTERSON | November 24, 2018 5:55 PM    Report this comment

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