Boring, We Know Thy Name: GPS Navigation


My student Jordan and I did a longish-70 miles-cross country in the Cub last weekend. It confirmed what I’ve always believed to be true: The essence of navigation is and remains map reading and second, GPS takes all the fun out of it. A third truth also emerged: Cubs aren’t just slow, they’re stupid slow. But that’s what makes them fun.We flew from Venice to Zephyrhills on a sort of mashup of pilotage and dead reckoning. Technically, dead reckoning should involve headings and requires a watch and a compass. Our Cub has one of those. Sort of. But between its deviation errors and the Cub’s kite like dips and swirls, it’s all but useless. So we flew pilotage along a plot line drawn on the chart with checkpoints at 10-mile intervals. As a nod to tradition, we had along a conventional E6B, but we did all the calculations on a virtual E6B app on an iPhone. (Hey, let’s not get too romantic about any of this)We flew the trip at 500 feet, the Cub’s natural best altitude. I haven’t done this kind of flying in, well, forever, and was surprised at the lack of detail on a sectional when you’re at 500 feet. I’d meant to bring a roadmap, but forgot it. At that altitude and 60 knots, you see everything below you-and also the Hawks and Herons above you. But there are ground details you can easily resolve that the sectional doesn’t depict, like a pattern of lakes and ponds, a small two-lane road and an abandoned railroad track. It was challenging to hand the sectional back and forth and calculate estimates to the next fix. Jordan nailed the course all the way, with a few minor corrections. Top groundspeed was 64 knots, the lowest 58 knots.Twenty-something blogs ago, I surmised that the right way to teach modern navigation is to combine GPS with detailed map reading. I am hereby withdrawing the idea, because making it work goes against the grain of human nature. For our return trip, we used a portable GPS and rather than the plot line, we flew the magenta line. As far as continuing pilotage is concerned, pushing the direct-to key might as well be the equivalent of pushing a button labeled, “disengage.”You still look out the window and at the ground, of course, and you observe details, but with the GPS doing all the work, the lazy thing to do is not bother to relate what you see to position on the map. Your GPS position is 22 miles from the destination, not two minutes early and a half-mile east of checkpoint 6. The map method is granular, the GPS more of a grand sweep. Truthfully, I prefer the map method over the GPS, which was, well, boring.I know, I know. I’m turning into the man my father warned me about. Must be coded in the DNA somehow.