March 18, 2010
By Mike Collins
Pilots who still relied on long-range navigation (loran-C) are adjusting to the system’s demise, after it was turned off by the Coast Guard on Feb. 8.
The system originally was developed to provide radio navigation service for U.S. coastal waters, and later was expanded to provide coverage of the continental United States as well as most of Alaska. Although loran was approved for aviation use, it was never designated as a civilian backup system for GPS. The Coast Guard, which maintained the system, says it has become antiquated; over the years, most loran users have transitioned to GPS. Language in the 2010 Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act required the Coast Guard to shut down the loran-C signal.
Several government and independent agencies have recommended using a different system, eLoran (enhanced loran) as a national backup for GPS. However, AOPA’s government affairs division has been unable to obtain a clear answer regarding eLoran’s future. It’s unclear whether existing loran-C receivers would be compatible with eLoran.
Mitch Darnell, who bases his Piper Cherokee 140 at Altus Municipal Airport in Oklahoma, knew about the loran-C shutdown from ePilot. “I wrote both of my senators, and one of them wrote me back—he said that he voted for shutting it down.” Darnell considered loran to be relatively inexpensive navigation at $39 million per year. “That’s cheap compared to putting up a satellite system.”
Darnell, who retired from the Air Force and used a Bendix/King KLN 88 loran, feels there are a lot of pilots in his financial category who can’t afford to install a new GPS, which could cost $10,000 or more. “I don’t care much for handhelds,” he said, adding that he’s not comfortable with the stability of GPS for navigation.
Conrad Petrick of North Huntington Township, Pa., has flown with a Northstar loran in his Cessna 172 for about 30 years. “In our Skyhawk we have two yoke-mounted GPSes. It’s just not as easy or convenient as the loran. One is harder to see in bright sunlight, and it takes more steps to get what I want out of it.”
The shutdown took Petrick by surprise. “After we had the snow here and finally got everything shoveled out and were able to fly, the loran said ‘No position information.’ Then I called flight service, and they didn’t really know much about it.” He said the briefer found a notam saying that loran was discontinued after Feb. 8.
He does not plan to invest in a panel-mount GPS because of the cost. “We’ll just use the omnis and the handheld GPSes—we’ll get along with that.”
Even though Raymond Cobak of Pleasant Hills, Pa., has a Garmin 430 in his 1962 Cessna 182, he said he always liked loran better than GPS. “It’s in English,” he said of the text-based display. By turning one knob, Cobak could find the 15 closest airports, by name. “I don’t have to know all the identifiers,” he added. “With the GPS, if air traffic control changes my route, I’m in trouble.”
Cobak, 84, said he has a current medical but doesn’t want to spend a lot of money on his airplane. Cost and restrictions on flying are becoming a hindrance, he added. “You don’t dare go from Rostraver [Airport] to Allegheny County—it’s just 10 miles—without checking.”
Now Cobak will rely more on the GPS for navigation—that, and his VOR receivers. “I just like the loran, but they turned it off—just my tough luck, I guess.”
Mike Collins has worked for AOPA’s media network since 1994. He holds a private pilot certificate with an instrument rating.
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