Short Final: Don’t Ask!


My old Bonanza was a very capable airplane for instrument flying, but my panel avionics did not include an FAA-blessed GPS navigator. My Garmin portable was a highly capable situational-awareness tool, but for IFR flight planning, I always stuck to VOR-to-VOR airway routing, even if the turns from one fix to the next involved nothing more than a few degrees.

My one big mission every year was flying to Oshkosh from home base in New Jersey, and I would dutifully plot out and file my legal flight plan—with my first fuel stop at Sandusky, Ohio (a wonderful airport now sadly lost to history). As with most trips west, the frequencies got a lot more relaxed after leaving the hubbub of the New York metro area.

But one oddity I noticed on this annual trip was that, for some reason, the airspace in mid-Pennsylvania would revert to New York Center control, with a jolting return to the rapid-fire exchanges peculiar to Big Apple controllers. On hearing that distinctive cadence after a frequency change, I reported in—with several hundred miles and five or so VORs between me and Sandusky. The controller brusquely said, “Cleared direct Sandusky.”

I repeated the clearance, then added gingerly, “Uh, be advised, I only have a portable GPS.” In a voice dripping with that aggravation New Yorkers can show when they want to do you a favor and you bring up those pesky “rules,” he said, “Youse wanna go direct Sandusky … or not?”

“Bonanza 3473 Bravo, direct Sandusky.”

Mark Phelps
Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.


  1. The author didn’t mention when this story took place. But in my experience, controllers never check the equipment code on my flight plan. They just assume everyone has GPS.

  2. Not the first time equipment has been used beyond certification. I have a customer than successfully landed in “Cat II ILS visibility” using Garmin TXi Synthetic Vision!

  3. There is NOTHING in the regs against using a non certified GPS to do that as long at you keep track of position with the certified equipment also.

  4. Several years ago I flew for a part 135 company. Our single FMS failed (could be MEL for 10 days) so we reverted to old school. We had a trip from SFO down to Thermal CA (TRM, Jacqueline Cochran Regional) just west of Palm Springs. We put “No RNAV” in the flight plan and it took ATC about 20 minutes to figure out a departure out of San Fran. We finally were cleared to takeoff and when contacting departure they gave us “Direct Seal Beach”. Right. The SLI VOR was over 300 miles away. I told them “unable”. They just didn’t know what to do with us. Finally they gave us a heading and “Direct Seal Beach when able”. So I dug out my iPad and gave the captain a more correct heading to SLI. Even ATC has gotten so used to RNAV routes that they don’t know what to do when GPS isn’t available. We thought it was kinda fun to revert to old school for a while.

  5. I picked up a pop up for afternoon buildups enroute from central PA to Niagara Falls in pre-GPS, pre-LoranC days. The center controller asked me how I was navigating. Told him, heading 010 seems to be working. He responded: Cleared IAG, dead reckoning, direct….

  6. I don’t think there is anything illegal in using the Ipad to navigate as long as the required certified equipment (VOR) is on board. You cannot use it for approaches. In theory you could say okay to direct and gone dead reckoning the whole way and be legal? Not sure.

  7. A few years ago I was flying a trip in a plane without GPS or a FMS. Doing exactly what the author was using a handheld GPS for reference, I had one time a controller asking how I was navigating to the next VOR that was about 200 miles away. I told the controller FRom the one I just flew over. Silence on the radio then the controller continued with other conversations.

  8. I’ve got a legacy SE Cessna without panel GPS but have used ForeFlight for direct IFR navigation for over 10 years now at ave of 100 hrs yr. Some years ago (pre COVID) I took a tour of one of the larger ATC Centers.

    At the Q&A after the tour I asked a controller “What if I am not using panel mount nav equipment to fly an IFR clearance direct?” Parphrasing the controllers answer: “We don’t care how you get there just as long as your direct reckoning navigation coincides with a direct route to the filed waypoint/destination”.