Eye of Experience #1:
A Lost Art?

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 AVwebon this great new medium have been gracious enough to permit me to use this space to writeanything I please (so long as it is in reasonably good taste), I intend to take fulladvantage of their kind offer. The freedom to speak my mind is absolutely wonderful! Sincemy writing has often been quite controversial, I welcome reader comments, criticism, andeven praise.

Because of my experience of having administered some four thousand certification flighttests 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 certainlynot be limited to that subject. I have devoted almost my entire adult life to aviationeducation and the certification process and I will be airing some of my pet peevesregarding flight training from time to time. In fact, one of these is the subject of thisfirst AVweb column.

A Lost Art

The other day a startling thread appeared in the Aviation Forum on AOL. In relating anadventure, someone wrote that having lost his navigation radios he was forced, whileflying 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 navigateby ded reckoning without being able to see landmarks?” This, of course, demonstrateda complete misunderstanding of both Ded Reckoning and Pilotage. I wonderjust how those people who believe that visual contact with landmarks is necessary for dedreckoning think we got along in IFR prior to the advent of VORs, DME, Loran C, GPS, andall the other wonderful stuff we have now? We used time and speed to compute distance, andwe navigated by “flying the beam,” the aural, four course radio range, the goodold Adcock Range, which put out four course signals which got stronger as we came closerto the station. And let me tell you, it was a real task to do this while struggling tokeep the airplane upright, since airplanes in those days weren’t nearly as stable astoday’s flying machines. Also, the task was compounded by the fact that the signal was lowfrequency 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 teachingthe student pilot the fundamentals of manipulating the airplane around in the sky, but nowthe student has so much more to learn that this phase of training has become a minor partof all that must be mastered. Not too many years ago our primary trainers had no electricsystems. This meant that not only were there no starters and lights in and on theairplane, but no radios of any kind, communication or navigation. Now, as well as nightflying and a smattering of instrument work, the student must master radio communicationand navigation as well. Of course, those older trainers (J3 Cubs and 7AC Champs) weretaildraggers and thus more demanding of basic pilot skills, because they were not nearlyas inherently stable as the modern trainer with its training wheel out in front and itssuperior design for stability.

Many, if not most, modern pilots have no idea what that rudder is all about. They planttheir feet firmly on the floor and drive the airplane through the sky as if it were anautomobile. And, they can get away with this because the designers made the airplanes somuch more stable. If you ever get the opportunity to watch an old-timer fly straight andlevel, you will see him carefully trim the aircraft out, then rest his toes lightly on therudder 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, markoff checkpoints every ten miles or so, get established on course, and hold a compassheading that kept us on the course line. Today’s pilots learn to do this for the checkrideand 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 outon the ground up ahead on our course and fly to it. Before we’d get there we would havesomething else selected farther along on the course. This is pilotage. We used to callthis flying by navigating treetop-to-treetop. Meanwhile, we would note the time as wepassed each checkpoint and keep track of the time to the next one while holding thecompass heading. This is ded reckoning. Thus VFR flying was a combination of the two, andbelieve me, it required that the pilot pay a lot more attention to the world outside thecockpit than most pilots do today. And, since aircraft engines weren’t as dependable thenas they are now, we would always have a suitable place to put the airplane down in case ofengine failure. This was both challenging and fun. By the bye, in my aviation career Ihave had three unscheduled landings in airplanes (gliders don’t count). Two of ’em wereoff-airport and in one case I was able to fly the airplane out again. In neither case wasthere any injury or damage.

One thing that helped then, and still helps today, is the fact that the old guys whoexplored and surveyed our great country back in the seventeen and eighteen hundredsanticipated the Wright brothers and their flying machines even if they didn’t realize itat the time. They did us an enormous favor. They laid the country out in a grid. Exceptwhere interrupted by terrain features such as hills, rivers, lakes, and so on, all thelines on the ground run north and south and east and west. The section lines, whichdescribe the circumference of a square mile, and the roads all run north-south andeast-west. While flying a course and holding a heading that keeps us on course, we caneyeball the lines on the ground and see that we maintain a constant angle as we crossthem. In fact, after gaining a bit of experience at this, we get to the point that we canlook at these section lines and judge the angle that will keep us on course. How’s thatfor simplicity?

You’re Missing a Lot

Today’s VFR-only private pilot doesn’t know what he or she is missing in terms of thejoy of basic cross-country flying by pilotage. I have a friend, a former student at myflight school, who owned an L-2 (WWII military Taylorcraft equipped for air ambulancework) with no electrical system whatever. You had to prop it to start it. This wonderfullady made at least two solo trips from Michigan to Florida, and numerous trips fromMichigan to the mountains of North Carolina in that airplane without ever talking toanybody. Her fuel stops entailed landing at small non-towered airports. After firstcarefully checking for traffic, she would make a proper pattern entry and land. Theairplane was, of course, equipped for day VFR-only flight and when she had to lay over forweather or overnight en route, she slept in the airplane. (Remember, it was set up for airambulance work.)

On those long, slow expeditions she would constantly challenge herself to fly a precisecourse and to arrive at each destination within a couple of minutes of her estimated timeof arrival. I am dead certain she enjoyed her flying experience a great deal more than themodern pilot who cranks in the lat-long coordinates of his or her destination in the GPSor Loran C, takes off, buries his head in the cockpit, never bothering to look aroundoutside the airplane, and flies directly to the destination. Looking at the moving map orCDI and not outside is also a safety hazard and another of my pet peeves, which I’lladdress in a future column. I urge all pilots to try flying the way Dorothy did. Ourwonderful country offers so much beauty to be seen and enjoyed, that those who fail totake advantage of this are missing more than they know.

Where Are We?

VFR from a Katana cockpitUnfortunately, today’s pilotsmiss a great deal of this. A friend of mine, a pilot examiner, had an interestingexperience along these lines. A private applicant spent no time at all planning the crosscountry task on his checkride. When the examiner asked him about this, the fellow repliedthat he would simply enter the destination in his GPS (which has a complete database) andfly direct. The examiner let him get away with this and when they started on thecross-country trip, after flying about fifteen miles along the way, the examiner turnedthe GPS (and all other navigation radios) off. The applicant instantly became hopelesslylost! 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’shandy-dandy method of cheating on what we used to call the “written exam,” butwhat is now known as the “knowledge exam.”

In most cases, someone else has already gained the experience you need the hardway-keep an eye out!