In this day and age, you would think that all airplanes would have GPS. Well, OK, maybe it doesn’t make sense for all of the VFR weekend warriors who just bore holes in the sky to have a GPS, although most do. But surely all twins would have GPS. But no, they don’t. OK, but really and truly—surely, Shirley—all jets have GPS.
My airline operates (and I fly) the oldest fleet of Canadair Regional Jets in North America. The thing is, even our oldest airplane, ship number 7011 as she is known, is only 14 years old, and has logged almost 34,000 hours and nearly as many cycles (takeoffs and landings). Like all of our CRJs, the cockpit is glass, an FMS is installed, and Category II ILS approaches are approved. But the grand old bird does not have GPS. It turns out that on some of our older airplanes, the avionics set-up does not support the addition of GPS without a considerable outlay of money, resources, and down time. Given that the lease on 7011 is almost expired and that she is due for some major inspections, odds are that GPS is still off in the future, if at all.
That being said, most of the time not having GPS is so transparent that you literally forget about it. The FMS, which blends a variety of nav sources to determine position, looks and acts like a GPS, and it allows for direct routing. We cannot accept satellite-based navigation procedures, but that is almost never an issue.
I recently flew a trip to Montreal (where 7011 was born) in one of 7011’s younger siblings, 7014, and the weather was very Canadian. It was cold and windy, and a small rainstorm had parked itself over the final approach course to Runway 28. Runway 28 did not have an ILS approach. It didn’t have a VOR or a localizer approach, either. Instead, it had—hold your breath—an NDB approach. An NDB approach! Talk about antiquated. I’ve only been flying since 1990, so I don’t remember when NDBs were the law of the land, as I grew up on VORs. However, I did expend an awful lot of sweat equity on NDB approaches in my IFR training, and I am not ashamed to admit that I failed my IFR checkride by busting an NDB approach. The fact is, at the time, I just did not have the full understanding and grasp of that particular mode of navigation and, like most pilots, I hated it. Even today, I’m still learning how to spell NDB, let alone fly one.
The NDB, or nondirectional radio beacon (my instructor said it also stood for “no deviating, buster”), is basically an AM radio signal. The instrument in the airplane is a needle that is supposed to sense the signal and point to it. The problem is, in a lot of weather conditions, the needle acts the same way as the AM radio in your car—unpredictably. Instead of pointing, it dances and swings and generally acts like a drunken sailor getting hit with a Taser. It’s no wonder (but wonderful) that airplanes aren’t being built with NDB equipment anymore. Further, a lot of pilots aren’t even being trained how to fly NDB approaches because so many of the approaches have GPS overlays now.
But not all of them. To make matters all the more interesting, the fellow with whom I was flying says to me, very nonchalantly, “I wasn’t trained on flying NDB approaches until I got here. And I think I did, maybe, one, and that was in the simulator. It was more of a demo. Now I get to watch a pro.”
A pro. I’ve done three of these in an airplane in IMC since I got my IFR ticket. This will be my fourth, and only my third in the last 11 years, not counting training. Those first three were down to minimums, so while I am not worthy of being called a pro, I am at least a survivor. At least this NDB has DME.
Anyway, there we are on the downwind, and the rain is sitting right on top of the airport, but it is moving, so a missed approach is not likely. Bringing up the bearing pointer, I begin to think about the basics of flying this approach and, because my first officer has so little experience with them, I think out loud.
“The needle is pointing to the station, which is the first indication that it is reliable. Now, in a nonradar environment, we would most likely be doing a procedure or tracking inbound from an established airway. But because we are getting vectored, it will be just like an ILS, with a turn to final. Company procedure says that when the needle is within 10 degrees of course, we turn final, fly the inbound heading, and correct accordingly.”
The more I talk, the better I feel. I am more rusty at this than I’d like to be, but, like riding a bike, it is coming back pretty fast. I had to fail a checkride on this maneuver to fully understand it, just like I had to fall off of my bike to fully grasp the need to keep balancing until my feet were on the ground.
We are vectored to the final, and I continue my little monologue.
“The rule is to push the head and pull the tail. That means when we drift while flying to the beacon, we fly toward the head of the needle until it is on course, then we add a wind correction as necessary. Then we cross the station, and fly away from the tail to maintain course.” At least, this is what I hope we’re supposed to do.
“Then we go…the needle is 10 degrees from the course, we turn left….roll out on course…and see what it does.” How about that! It’s working.
From this point, my chatter drops considerably. The FO is making the requisite altitude calls, and, thanks to the Canadians and their DME, we do not have to start the time when we cross the station. It takes a moment or two for the needle to settle down. I hold my breath to see if the course we held is affected by the changes in the wind as we descend toward minimum descent altitude. We had a pretty strong quartering headwind from the left, and we have indeed drifted a bit to the right, but not more than a degree or two. Every 10 seconds or so, I follow an old trick I was taught and turn to the published course and see where we are relative to the course. We are so close that trying to fix it would probably make it worse, so I fly the wind correction that is working so well.
What’s killing me is that there is a GPS approach to the same runway using the same fixes as the NDB, but I can’t use it. But just out of curiosity, I asked the FO to leave the FMS display up on his screen, just to see how far off it would be.
The FO is making the altitude callouts and I am mentally prepared for a missed approach if need be. We shouldn’t need one, as the rain is beginning to lighten. Sure enough, the rain stops, the sun becomes visible, and we look up and voilà, there is the runway. Not just any runway, but the correct one, on the correct airport. It’s not as dead on center as I’d like it to be, but we aren’t more than a few feet off the centerline. I’ll take it.
I took a quick glance at the FO’s screen and saw that the course generated by the FMS was more than a mile off—that’s right, the FMS lost that much accuracy as we descended. With GPS, this would not have been a problem. Funny, but as a student, most of my NDB approaches were also a mile off. OK, so that isn’t all that funny. At least this time I got it right.
When we got to the gate, I turned to my FO and asked what he thought. He shrugged and said, “Looked pretty easy to me. I don’t see what the big deal is.”
That’s when I knew that, for once, I’d finally flown it like a pro. It took 15 years, but it finally happened. The big realization that any pilot will have at some point is that the same skills that keep a 172 on course and right side up, once perfected, will keep a jet on course and right side up. Likewise, skills unused are skills wasted, and I will be making an effort to keep my NDB skills more current in the future. Bigger equipment is faster and you have to think faster—but the same foundation not only works for both, it is necessary to have, just like transferring those bike riding skills to a motorcycle. Of course, I fell off of one of those too, but that’s a different story.
Chip Wright of Hebron, Kentucky, is a captain for a regional airline.