Technicalities: The Synthetic and the Real

In an artificial world that has become dominated by technology, do we become less real?

In the old days, navigation by pilotage was pretty straightforward. Unless you stopped paying attention, you always knew where you were.Jeff Berlin

I find myself — and I’m sure I’m not alone in this — consulting Google Maps before setting off by car even to places I know perfectly well how to reach. The Google lady knows even more than I do about the roads. She checks all the shortcuts. She tells me there is “usual traffic” and that I will arrive at 3:03. She is almost never wrong. I’m a far cry from our forebears, who expected no better than “I’ll meet you at Laramie in August.”

A woman who was learning to fly spoke to me of that “lost-in-the-sky” feeling. (She had felt it on a solo cross-country, somewhere south of Bakersfield, California.) I had to reach back a long way to know what she meant. The sense of place occupies a broad spectrum, from the dementia victim who becomes disoriented in his own backyard to the Inuit who can precisely map a coastline they have never looked down on from the air. We enter the sky unprepared. Landmarks are unfamiliar, angles deceptive, known rivers and lakes in short supply, and every town seems to have a drive-in theater next to it. It is easy to see why a newcomer might experience a mild sense of panic.

In the olden days, staying oriented was both easier and harder. You stayed low. Navigation by pilotage was pretty straightforward. Unless you stopped paying attention, you always knew where you were.

Radio aids, such as they were, added an element of mystery and opportunities for error. I started flying too late for four-course ranges, but I did become intimate with the automatic direction finder, or ADF, especially in and south of Mexico. By the time I began flying, the rotating loop on the roof was being replaced by a little box of semiconductors, but the principle remained the same: The needle pointed to the source of the signal.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t always a beacon where you wanted to go. You could fly to a beacon and then dead reckon to your destination, or you could use two beacons to fix your position. Two beacons presented a tricky conceptual mind salad of heading and bearings, and I even made — and, for all I know, invented, but I doubt it — a gadget with two transparent arms pivoted on the center of a transparent compass rose. You set the arms to the bearings of two beacons and laid the gadget down on the chart, with the zero line coinciding with your heading. You then slid it around until each arm crossed a beacon. The center of the protractor rested on your location, more or less.

The alternative to my gadget was to turn until one beacon was straight ahead and note the bearing of the second. The reciprocal of your heading was your radial from the first beacon. That number, plus the indicated bearing to the second beacon if it was to the right, minus if to the left, was your radial from the second beacon. Where they crossed was where you were.

If you had only one beacon, the problem got a little harder. You could turn until the beacon was off your wing and see how long it took the needle to swing 30 degrees. The distance you had flown in that time was half the distance to the beacon. If you got impatient, you could settle for 15 degrees; in that case, it was a quarter. Of course, all this time you would be flying in the wrong direction, unless there just happened to be a good beacon abeam. But a certain amount of indirection was expected; you could not expect to fly straight to just any location.

In the days of the four-course range you knew roughly where you were, but not exactly. There must always have been a little of that lost-in-the-sky feeling.

In practice — I did much of my flying in the West, where long periods of foul weather were rare — it was seldom necessary to resort to those technical tricks. As often as not, the ADF merely confirmed what you already knew — and, if you used broadcast stations, provided a little scratchy music besides.

VORs, which began to proliferate after World War II, made roads — or railroad tracks — in the sky. Still, positions have two dimensions — ignoring altitude — and radials provide but one. Before radar was universal, every IFR position report had to be accompanied by an estimated time at the next fix. This required some bookkeeping; if you daydreamed, or you got out of range of the signal, or the winds became particularly capricious, it got tricky. DME solved that problem. What a neat thing it was, that slim box confidently reeling off tenths of a nautical mile! When I got a DME, I felt that I had everything I would ever need.

Bit by bit, however, the atmos­pherics of flying were changing. In the days of the four-course range and the NDB you knew roughly where you were, but not exactly, unless you were watching the needle flip as you passed directly over the station. There must always have been a little of that lost-in-the-sky feeling. With VOR and DME, even when you wandered off into the blank-white terra incognita between the radials, if you could pull up a station, you could put your finger on the map and say, “I am about here.” There was some precision. But there was also still some need for a mental picture, for an intuitive sense of how far you had come, what was left and how long it would take.

And then came GPS.

Pilots are now in roughly the position of the Uber or Lyft driver who expertly follows the instructions of a smartphone to reach a destination, without any underlying idea of how to get there. And the annoying part of it is that this system works better than the old one did — annoying because older pilots like me take pride in our hard-won navigation skills, and now anybody with a phone or iPad can do better.

It is customary, when one has reached a certain age, to lament the loss of — what should I call it, the texture of flying? The feelings we had picking up a faint station identifier or the flash of a sought-for rotating beacon in the darkness. Scanning the green countryside for the green patch of a grass strip, and spotting a parked Cessna first. Hugging railroad tracks that fade ahead into the mist. Landing just in time, and huddling under a wing as the rain pours down. The relief of reading a town’s name on a water tower. The boredom of droning toward a distant cloud. Those experiences, the sum of which defined being a pilot, are fading away, replaced by a synthetic world from which all unknowns have been banished and in which a creeping icon is more essential than the sky above and the earth below.

Nor, I guess, do we anymore get to sit by a guttering fire under the shimmering prairie stars, listening to the coyotes yelp and wondering if we’ll even make it to Laramie before the end of summer.