It’s a good bet that every student pilot encounters subjects in the required curriculum that don’t spark their interest. Aerodynamic theory seems dazzling to some but unbearably dry to others, and for every pilot who finds weather intrinsically fascinating there’s probably at least one more whose interest in meteorology begins and ends with the question, “Can I fly in this?” Unfortunately, one side effect of the march of technology has been to make it easier and easier to let navigation slide onto the list of topics you don’t much care about. We’ve begun to hear exasperated comments from examiners tired of testing candidates who, as one put it, couldn’t find the Grand Canyon unless it was at the end of a magenta line.
That’s a shame, because knowing where you are and how to get where you’re going isn’t just something you want your students to be able to demonstrate on their checkrides. It’s a vital aspect of operating in the small-aircraft world without the multiple layers of scrutiny, backup, and verification that protect airline and military crews. GPS is a wonderful tool, but exclusive reliance on any single tool is an invitation to mischief. As elsewhere in aviation, prudence suggests supplementing the preferred technique with Plans B, C, and maybe D.
Without conscious application on the pilot’s part, skills that aren’t strong on checkride day don’t improve afterward, and the record isn’t short of accidents that arose from the pilot’s failure to put the aircraft where intended. Sometimes the consequences are more comic than catastrophic. Connoisseurs of NTSB reports will find it hard to beat this statement: “The pilot reported that he was surprised when local law enforcement informed him that he was in Seligman, Arizona, instead of his intended destination of Boulder City, Nevada.” The first indication of the error was encountering terrain at what he thought was pattern altitude while approaching the airport at night. The two fields are about 100 nautical miles apart—in roughly opposite directions from his starting point of Kingman, Arizona.
For sheer persistence, however, that guy has to settle for second place behind the 600-hour private pilot who figured dead reckoning would be good enough to get him through a 125-nm cross-country. Eventually he began running low on fuel and made a precautionary landing on a ranch. He then “realized that he was in Mexico, approximately 206 miles south of his intended destination.” He took off again and flew north—apparently he was able to figure out which way north was—until he saw a Texas flag. With an estimated three gallons remaining in the tanks, he hit a fence trying to land on a gravel road.
Fuel exhaustion is one of the more obvious hazards of getting lost, but it’s not the only one. Mistaking a blind canyon for the pass you had planned to fly through is one of the classic setups for crashing in the mountains. (Another is trying to follow that magenta line direct-to without stopping to figure out whether the peaks might climb faster than the aircraft.) Even when the hills aren’t that high, not knowing exactly where they are courts disaster. In a so-far-unexplained accident in Virginia, a flight-school Skyhawk on a dual night cross-country settled in at a cruising altitude of 3,000 feet. The instructor was killed when they flew into a mountainside at about 3,100 feet msl—700 feet lower than their destination airport.
Good navigational skills begin with good flight planning, another area where technology has made life easier in the short term while undermining skills and discipline in the long run. The ready availability of flight-planning software makes it tempting to take whatever the machine spits out without troubling to identify recognizable landmarks or double-check required climb gradients, special-use airspace, or the possibility of confusing similar-looking airports in close proximity. Some of these products are happy to plot a route through prohibited airspace or allow IFR pilots to file for an altitude below the minimum authorized for that segment.
People can forget what they’ve learned, but they can’t remember what they never knew. As GPS becomes the first choice for finding our way on the ground as well as in the air, it becomes that much more crucial for pilots to learn to do things the hard way before they’re allowed to take advantage of modern conveniences. After all, in flight it’s a good deal more difficult to pull over and ask for directions. We’d recommend requiring all students to show thorough mastery of pilotage, dead reckoning, and radio navigation before they’re permitted to power up the GPS. (And if instructors still prefer to track those flights on their personal portable devices in the meantime, well—safety first!)
David Jack Kenny is manager of safety analysis for the Air Safety Institute.