The Opposite of Lost
With today’s high-tech tools, it’s easy to forget that figuring out where the heck we are in the air hasn’t always been so easy.
By Robert Goyer / Published: Apr 09, 2013
“Pilotage” — the word spoken by my primary flight instructor, retired F-4 instructor Si Campbell, as if it were a spell. It was, he said, the complex art of figuring out where you are by reference to your surroundings. Knowing where you are from the air might sound easy to those non-pilots dwelling between 5 and 6 feet agl, but it doesn’t take many minutes to realize that at altitude, things look very different than they do on the ground. Without navaids, getting lost in the air isn’t just easy to do; it’s almost impossible to avoid. In the desert, where I learned to fly, it’s a bit easier than in most places. At least in my little corner of the desert, pilotage was easy. Once you know the shape of a mountain, or group of mountains, you can immediately place yourself in the world even when you’re 50 miles away or more. He explained the trick — and as with any great craft, there are nothing but tricks and more tricks, until the tricks turn into something else entirely — is to use every available clue and piece them all together until it adds up to an answer.
Si had done three tours of duty in Vietnam as a forward air controller, one of the guys who risked life and limb every flight to find the enemy and point them out to the guys with the bombs. I still can’t entirely understand how he was able to find his way around the jungles of Indochina, flying just over treetop level in Cessna O-1 Bird Dogs and, later, O-2s (the military version of the Mixmaster). Rivers? I wondered. Smoke signals? A Ouija board on the glareshield? But he did it, and came home to his family not once, but three times.
Flying speaks to different pilots in different ways, and early on I loved the science behind not just pilotage but all kinds of navigation technologies. The story behind navigation is the march of technologies that are fatally flawed... but a nose better than the current competition. Think NDBs and VORs. They still exist, yet I haven’t tuned a VOR in anger in more than a decade.
So it was a cool trip down memory lane, working with my colleagues at Flying to create our new web gallery, Flying Magazine’s Top 50 Navigation Innovations. Some of the pieces I could write off the top of my head, like the one on NDB and ADF — trauma has a way of sticking with you. Seriously, when you live with these technologies, they matter to you. Others, like four-course range technology, predate me by a good bit, and learning about them in depth was great fun.
But when all is said and done, I love the barest technology best, the paper map. When I was getting recurrent back in the late 1980s after having taken off a few years while I was in college, a CFI friend accompanied me on a longish cross country from one desert outpost to another. As we were departing the pattern, he handed me the sectional, turned off all of my radios and told me to take him home. With a few short false starts, I did just that. It was a blast.
Like many of our readers, I’ve been lucky enough to have a front row seat for the arrival of mass market computer technology into every level of aviation. The power we have in a $500 tablet computer dwarfs the overall capabilities of all but the most sophisticated avionics suites of 20 years ago, and even those in some regards.
At the same time, I pine for the lost craft of navigation, when figuring out which railroad track led to which little water-tower-Midwest town was part of the fun, when timing legs and figuring out true airspeed and ground speed and wind corrections was part of the art. Now, a quick glance at the display tells all. It’s sad.
Still, like you, I keep the displays turned on. My chronograph is merely for show. But I fondly remember those days of always being on the verge of being lost. Somehow, it gave me a strong sense of being in exactly the right place.