AOPA Pilot - Technique

Where Are You?

December 1, 2006

A compass, a clock, and a sectional chart

"Meanwhile, Pancho Barnes was following the pilot's friend, the iron compass — railroad tracks. The pilots all agreed that they were never lost, simply momentarily disoriented." — The Powder Puff Derby of 1929 by Gene Nora Jessen

Once, during my youth, I flew a 1947 Piper PA-12 Super Cruiser from Corpus Christi, Texas, to Soldotna, Alaska. My big-money job had ended with the sharp devaluation of the Mexican peso following that country's presidential election of 1982. Longing for the West, and with the promise of a job in Alaska, I loaded my toolbox in the backseat of the Cruiser and set off. I flew along each day at a leisurely 95 mph until I was tired — the longest distance I covered in one day was 711 nautical miles from Williams Lake, British Columbia, up "The Trench" (a 490-mile-long valley) to Watson Lake, British Columbia, before turning west and following the highway to Whitehorse, Yukon. Hobbled by a Narco Mark 12 nav/com that seemed too tired to pull in VOR stations, I was forced to navigate solely by reference to charts, roads, rivers, and mountain ranges, advice from local pilots, and the Airpath magnetic compass that was mounted on the glareshield of my trusty Cruiser.

Was it a problem to find my way? No, not really. Did I get lost? No, but I did get momentarily disoriented once between Abbotsford, British Columbia, and Williams Lake. I missed a turn during a moment of inattention but soon realized that the terrain in front of the airplane did not match the terrain on the chart, so I turned around, found the turn I'd missed, and got back on track. I'll admit that I rarely use a chart and a compass as my primary means of navigation anymore, but I can if I have to. Here are some tips so you can too.

Learn to read a sectional chart

There's nothing that's more valuable than a sectional chart when planning and flying cross-country flights by pilotage. I understand the convenience of carrying electronic charts, but there's something about getting down on the floor with a couple of charts to lay out the best route for the next leg that never fails to spike the senses. World aeronautical charts are invaluable when looking at the big picture, but they're like Reader's Digest Condensed Books — they leave out a lot of the important details that are vital when navigating by pilotage.

Some pilots might argue that navigating by reference to an out-of-date sectional will make very little difference. After all, they say, the mountains, rivers, and airports haven't moved for a long time. What can and does change from chart to chart are magnetic variation, airport and weather reporting (automated surface observation system and automated weather observation system) frequencies, and special-use airspace. Use current charts.

Drawing your proposed course on a chart is a good practice because it establishes the "road" to your destination. If you don't draw the course on your chart, you are admitting you either don't have a plan or don't need one. That may be OK if you're taking a short trip and know the terrain, but a plan is critical when you're flying in unknown territory. The key to navigating by pilotage is knowing where you are in space and being able to locate that spot on a chart. It's easiest to keep track when you plan your flight and fly your plan.

The course line establishes the correct visual orientation to the world outside the airplane — and to the chart in the airplane. Locating positions on a chart seems confusing for many pilots because they aren't comfortable in their ability to "see" the terrain when looking at the one-dimensional chart. Relax. It's not that hard if you follow a few tricks and the more you do it, the easier it gets.

Of necessity, there will have to be a series of chart unfoldings and refoldings as progress is made. Use a knee board or even a normal office-type clipboard to keep the folded chart under control. It's much easier to reorient the clip end of a clipboard — which has the appropriate route segment of the chart correctly aligned and held in position by the clip — than to re-corral the chart and then locate the appropriate route segment of a loose chart after it has been set aside for a minute or two.

Since you're attempting to fly the airplane along the course line, turn the chart so your course line on the chart is aligned with the centerline of the airplane. In GPS parlance, this is termed "track-up orientation." Some pilots like to orient the chart to north up when approaching an airport for landing. This orientation makes it easier to visualize the traffic pattern since runway numbers are referenced to magnetic north.

If your course is 120 degrees magnetic, orient the chart so a 120-degree magnetic track across the chart is pointed at the nose of the airplane. There is a compass rose (which is oriented with magnetic north) located at every VOR on charts—use it to get the correct chart alignment and you'll quickly eliminate half the struggle of navigating by chart.

Learn chart symbology

"You can't tell the players without a program," yells the barker outside the ballpark. And you can't use a chart for navigation unless you know the symbology. At the very least, pilots practicing pilotage must learn the symbols in the Topographic Information and the Obstructions sections on the legend side of every sectional. One dichotomy in using a sectional chart for navigation: The charts are so big (a good thing) and airplane interiors are so small that it's a struggle to attempt to fully unfold a sectional while flying to check what a symbol means. If you don't have time to memorize the symbols, prepare a cheat sheet to prevent mistakes. A 3-by-5-inch card has more than enough room.

Many pilots say that IFR means "I follow roads." I will admit I found the Fort Stockton, Texas, airport on that first leg of my Alaska adventure by flying northwest out of Del Rio, Texas, until I came across the only road of any consequence, and then I turned west to follow it into town.

Use that chart

OK, the airplane is gassed up, all the gear is stowed and strapped down, and you're ready to go. You've got your chart snapped into the clipboard in a track-up (toward the clip on the clipboard) position. When your wheels leave the ground, write the "time off" on the chart, or on your trip log if you're using one. Once you've reached cruising altitude, write that time down too. Once established on the heading of the first leg of your course, spend some time getting the terrain you see out the windshield and the topographical depiction shown on the chart to match. It takes a little time to learn to see the terrain from the overhead view shown on charts.

If matching the actual terrain with the charted terrain seems daunting, narrow your field of view. Find a prominent terrain feature such as a distinctive mountain peak, a bend in a river, or a town that's on your desired course. Steer toward it and take some time to look slightly left and then slightly right of course for other details. Find those details on the chart.

Gradually widen your view as your mind begins to recognize the types of details depicted on your sectional chart. It won't take too long to learn to see the world like a cartographer. Once you get your eye attuned you'll see more and more. Stick with it; there's a lot of satisfaction that comes after successfully navigating a new route using pilotage.

Navigate across the flatlands

There are many sections of this great country of ours where significant topographical details such as mountains, coastlines, and big rivers aren't visible and the terrain seems to be flat for hundreds of miles in all directions. This doesn't mean pilotage is impossible.

Ben Redman of Rare Aircraft delivers Waco biplanes rebuilt at the family facility in Owatonna, Minnesota, to customers all across the fruited plain. He has these tips to offer pilots navigating by pilotage over what first appears to be featureless terrain.

"Look for the differences," says Redman. By this, Redman means a prominent bend in a road, river, or train track. "Abandoned railroad beds always stand out because they're overgrown by foliage. This straight line of green is easy to spot."

Small towns almost always paint the name of the town on the town water tower. "Many small towns in the Midwest also have racetracks," Redman says. "I'll drop down and fly low if I'm sure of my position but flying higher helps me see more. This gives me more landmarks to check against my position on my chart." Redman says he typically cruises at 2,500 to 3,000 feet agl.

Redman says he always pre-folds and lays out the charts he will need for a trip. Roy Redman, Ben's father, also taught him to write down — on the chart or a trip log — the time he crosses each preselected waypoint. The point of all the timekeeping is to prevent those inevitable diversions from morphing into truly getting lost.

Here's how that works. When a position check is performed every 10 minutes it's much easier to discover and correct a wrong turn, or "momentary disorientation," as those intrepid female fliers in the 1929 Powder Puff Derby liked to say, than it is after flying for 30 minutes in the wrong direction. The 10-minute rule is flexible. Many pilots relax their timekeeping when the visibility is excellent and distinct landmarks are easy to see. But when visibility drops down, the practice of waypoint timekeeping will drastically reduce the possibility of getting lost.

Practice pilotage on your next flight. Get out a fresh sectional, draw a course line to a new destination, and use your Mark 1-model eyes to find your way. You'll get there as you relearn how to navigate by pilotage. It's one of the skills that made the early days of flying so fascinating.

E-mail the author at steve.ells@aopa.org.