Safety Publications/Articles


GPS is an aid, not a crutch

Students need to know navigation

When was the last time that you navigated cross-country solely with pilotage and dead-reckoning skills? With all of today's electronic navigational equipment, you probably haven't for awhile. Why would you? Current GPS receivers allow you to dial in a direct course and fly a heading, with distance to go displayed on the same screen.

Suppose you are flying in the mountainous areas of Arizona and cannot receive a signal from more than two satellites, or you planned to intercept a VOR that is out of service. Besides being an issue of pride, it is a duty of every pilot to ensure that he can find his way if his electronic navigational equipment fails. This is especially true for instructors, who are tasked with passing this knowledge to others.

I remember my first cross-country flight as a student pilot at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's Prescott, Arizona, campus. We were heading to Deer Valley, a tower-controlled airport just north of Phoenix. The straight-line path is about 62 miles, with mountains along half of them. The route to the east is longer by about 10 miles, but it features Interstate 17, which connects Prescott to Phoenix. I opted for the western route, assuming that if there was to be a navigation problem, I could tune in the Phoenix VOR.

But as soon as we took off, my instructor turned off the nav radios, saying that they "failed," and had me navigate via a sectional and flight-plan calculations. With reduced visibility caused by haze, I had difficulty staying on the planned course. I eventually did locate Lake Pleasant, just to the northwest of Deer Valley airport, allowing me to confirm my position and set up to enter the traffic pattern. On the way back, we took the eastern route. Even at night, the bright highway would have been enough for even the most navigation-challenged pilot.

With that flight, I learned a valuable lesson that, in my experience, is becoming less common in the world of computer navigation.

GA radio navigation has come a long way. With the declassification of GPS in the 1980s and rapid adoption by civilians, a pilot can pinpoint his or her exact position to within 100 meters anywhere in the world. Other advanced RNAV systems, as well as GPS, allow exact course plotting. Some of the newer systems even offer the option to superimpose weather on the navigation displays. I once heard a pilot brag about how he can slave his autopilot to the "flight data computer" and read a book until it is time to take control again.

Time to take control again? I hope that this strikes you in the same way it does me. I believe the developers of this technology intended it to augment situational awareness of the pilot in command, not replace it. However, many low-time and student pilots hold this new technology in such awe that they forget about the most important resource aboard any aircraft: experience.

During my training I remember hearing of pilots who claimed to navigate on solo cross-country flights solely with nav radios, rarely looking at the VFR chart checkpoints that their instructor had asked them to mark. This has been a common problem since the advent of radio navigation, of course, but with the advanced navigation systems that are currently available on the market and the growth of GA, the severity of the issue has been underestimated.

I'll admit that during my initial training, I depended on nav radios quite a bit. With mostly desert surrounding the towns of Prescott and Prescott Valley, there were not many ground checkpoints for navigation. My error in judgment became very clear when those nav radios were turned off. In relying solely on the radios, I failed to develop pilotage skills and, in turn, was not prepared for a radio failure.

The method that my flight instructor chose to enlighten me proves that there is no better teacher than experience. I know of many instructors who simply state the importance of being able to trust your own navigational skills, and then allow their students to rely on the radios as much as they need to. Excluding or impractically diluting a major aspect of flying is the last way anybody should be trained. Real-life events are seldom as forgiving as a flight instructor's simulated ones (see "CFI Tips," p. 78, for a real-life example of a similar lesson).

Student pilots should first be taught how to navigate using a sectional and compass. Navigation elements such as landmark identification, groundspeed calculation by use of checkpoints, and wind correction by use of preplanned calculations are all skills that must be ingrained from the start. The nav radios should not even be introduced until it is time to use them for basic attitude training along with tracking VOR radials and NDB bearings. Once the instructor is confident that the student can use them when lost, they should be turned off and the student should be encouraged to keep them off unless the need arises.

Pilots can expect to see even more technology that will further broaden their awareness of the aviation environment. Instructors must pay attention and avoid the temptation to allow reliance on this technology.

By Bruce Anzalone

Bruce Anzalone is an intern with the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. A recent graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, he is a commercial pilot with instrument and multiengine ratings.

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