Posts Tagged ‘navigation’

Is flying VFR with an iPad prudent?

Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

At the risk of sounding old school, I’m going to address a topic about modern flight instruction. I got this particular idea while perusing an internet bulletin board. The issue was the practice of using an iPad for VFR navigation once the private pilot checkride is over. Is this a good idea?

The argument in favor of using the iPad comes down to one of convenience. Simply put, with electronic charts and GPS capability, it essentially renders obsolete the need to use paper charts or to keep a paper log. The pilot can simply follow the magenta line between points A and B. And all of this is true. Cockpit clutter is decreased, and theoretically so is workload. In the airplane in question, the panel does not have modern “glass” avionics nor a GPS; it features steam gauges and two VORs.

I believe that a private pilot should rely as little as possible on such electronic gee-wizardry, even when it’s mounted in the airplane. The reason I say this is that part of basic airmanship is learning, using, and understanding—truly understanding—the art of navigation. This includes the concept of calculating and using wind correction angles, compass corrections, and isogonic lines. Simply following a course line on a screen is not understanding; it’s rote, and rote is not a skill.

The skill of computing courses and distances and wind correction angles is not to be taken for granted. It needs to be practiced for awhile to be fully ingrained, and since new pilots generally only fly on good VFR days, there is no reason not to complete a flight log and use it (along with a sectional) while looking out a window. I have no issue with using an electronic sectional with no courses on it, because it is easier than using paper, and as a simple resource, it does indeed reduce workload.

Once the basic skill of filling out the blocks on a paper nav log are mastered, transitioning to a computer-generated one is not only reasonable, but on a long trip, prudent, as the computer is the most accurate method available. However, the pilot should still practice steering the proper course on the DG while using a VOR (when applicable), and should most definitely keep track of times and fuel burns. Where there is a discrepancy, you need to know how to account for it, and to come up with an alternate plan of action when one is called for (usually an unplanned fuel stop in a headwind).

Flying VFR with your head buried in the cockpit is not only a bad idea, it’s unsafe. There is a value in being able to fly from A to B using nothing but a chart, a watch, and a pencil. Besides, most of us learn to fly in part because we want to enjoy the view. The best way to do that is to use it to help you aviate and navigate.—Chip Wright

Little-used skills

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

At every stage of training in aviation, we are inundated with information. That which is most useful usually stands out pretty clearly, and is often common sense: Stay out of the clouds when flying VFR; maintain your altitude, especially when on an IFR flight; use your checklists. But along the way we learn—or try to—a lot of what appears to be either minutiae or skills and information that just don’t appear to have a lot of modern-day application.

It’s long been a complaint among pilots learning to fly IFR that we should not have to learn anything about microwave landing systems because they really has no practical application in the modern world. The same could be said about a lot of the weather products we struggle to memorize.

But there are few nuggets here and there that are worth keeping in the back of your mind, especially if you are interested in doing any flying that will require flying over large quantities of open water. Airline flying and top-of-the-line corporate flying fall into these categories:

  • Position reports. It’s one thing to read about a position report, but it’s something else to really put it into use. I currently fly over the Pacific a lot, and position reports are an essential way of life. The format is standard, but it needs practice to be perfected. There are certain rules that need to be met. Remember the one about being off by more than three minutes? If not, go look it up! It’s very unlikely that you will need to use this skill in the United States, but in the event of a radar outage, you will need it. This is an easy skill to practice on any flight. You can verbalize the report to yourself without transmitting it.
  • Lost communication procedures. When was the last time you really reviewed what to do? How well would you handle this? Considering that modern equipment is becoming more and more “single unit,” how well would you do if that all-in-one box in your airplane just went kaput?
  • Good guesstimation. How well can you estimate the amount of fuel your airplane will use on a given flight? If the gauges were to fail, could you be within 5 percent of the total burn if you had to make a guess? Could you be within 3 percent? Again, this is an easy skill to practice on any flight just by making notes on a separate sheet of paper. If it’s an airplane you fly regularly, you should also keep track of your burn records at various altitudes, engine settings, et cetera. The charts and data in the book are based on new equipment. The added benefit to doing this in your airplane is that if the performance begins to deteriorate, you will have something to point your mechanic in the right direction.
  • Old-fashioned navigation. If you want to find out just how good your skills are, go flying with a safety pilot buddy. Revert to needle, ball, and airspeed, and fly a short cross-country using just your wet compass and your watch. This can be very humbling in the modern world.

Flying has become so technologically driven that it is easy to forget the basics and the simplicity that can be used. Take the time to knock some rust off your mental and physical skills, and boost your confidence at the same time. Remember, the best pilots are always training!—Chip Wright

Lessons from my most recent cross-country

Monday, August 5th, 2013

TripFor some people, flying a cross-country trip is no big deal. Check the weather, file a flight plan, and off they go. Sometimes I envy those people.

For me it’s usually a huge production involving much gathering of gear, checking and re-checking the weather, and making sure I have contingency plans in place for every aspect of the flight.

And still things don’t always go as planned, and I come away with valuable lessons learned. Here are a few, gleaned from my most recent trip in my Cherokee 140 from Maryland to Wisconsin and back:

  • iPads don’t like heat. I knew enough not to put my iPad on the glareshield, but just having it sit in the right seat in a hot cockpit was enough to make the thing crap out.
  • Flight planning programs suck up a lot of battery on an iPad. A three-hour leg used up all the juice in my fully charged iPad, putting it out of commission for the second three-hour leg of the day. (I had paper charts for back-up.)
  • Noise fatigue is a real thing. Try flying two three-hour legs with a passive noise reduction headset, then come back and tell me it’s not.
  • Crosswind landing proficiency comes in handy when you least expect it. A planned fuel stop in Ohio presented a 15-knot direct crosswind. I coached myself through it and landed, but kept an alternate airport in mind just in case the winds proved too much of a challenge.
  • Watch the weather, always. At that same ground stop in Ohio, I spent an hour on the ground, just trying to rest and recharge a bit before launching on my second leg. A bit of bad weather was off to the north, but I didn’t think it would be a problem—until it reached the vicinity of the airport before I was ready to leave.
  • There’s nothing quite as satisfying as traveling the country by GA. All of these minor glitches aside, the planning and (eventual) successful execution of my flights was a fun and fulfilling experience, something that certainly can’t be matched in Seat 34A, Aisle 12 of a Boeing 737 or riding in the relative comfort of a car.—Jill W. Tallman

The best instrument there is

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

When I first started flying, I used to hear a lot of old timers tell stories about navigating with NDBs and the four-course range. VORs were the sexy new toy of the future. I still didn’t understand how one could safely navigate across the ocean, since VORs didn’t exist on water. I knew that the concept of taking star sightings existed, but I also knew that it was premised on a clear night. Conceptually, I think I knew that the speed of jets would make such triangulation difficult, but not impossible. It also didn’t dawn on me that not every nation in the world could just lay out VORs willy-nilly the way the United States did.

I also heard a lot of stories about the development of the flight instruments. Early versions of attitude indicators and directional gyros were primitive by the standards I was used to. The radios themselves were not always very good. It seemed like there were two classes: top-of-the-line Bendix-King…and everybody else. The Cessna radios were pretty good, but they didn’t have any of the “cool” features like flip-flop windows, DME, and the like. DME, by the way, was some kind of cool. Garmin rules the radio world now, it seems.

It wasn’t long before I began to follow in earnest the homebuilt movement. Kitplanes were just beginning to spread in great numbers—early RVs, Glasair, Lancair, and Kitfox dominated the advertising—and they also spawned a great deal of innovation that we now take for granted. A lot of the modern avionics that cost truckloads of money got started in the experimental arena. Certification wasn’t nearly as stringent, and the rapidly improving computer technologies (both hardware and software) invited a great deal of experimentation. A lot of the inspiration was drawn from airline and military “stuff,” but much of it was simply new. The cost was much lower than it would have been had everything been put through the gamut of FAA testing. It was clear that the homebuilders were leading the way. Nowadays, new airplanes with “glass” technology are taken for granted.

GPS, of course, has changed everything. I personally miss the days when pilots learned the intricacies of aerial navigation not just to pass a written test, but because their lives depended on it. But GPS simply makes a mockery of pencil-and-paper travel. With GPS, you don’t need to call Flight Watch for winds aloft; the heading for the nearest airport is a button push away; and the moving map makes a paper sectional seem quaint…but I still like the paper chart.

NDBs are relatively rare, and the GPS overlay approach can provide lower minimums. Other things long on a pilot’s wish list were an RMI, an autopilot, loran, weather radar, and better “orange juice cans” for the Cessna series. Today, such items have either been leap-frogged or accomplished.

But the most important instrument in the plane doesn’t get much attention. It isn’t fancy or sexy or sold by women in bikinis. It is, however, the cheapest in terms of bang for the buck, and it doesn’t let you down.

As fast as computers are, and as nifty as Nexrad weather is; as efficient and reliable as a moving map is; as handy and helpful as a TCAS display is; the fact is that nothing on an aircraft—or even a spacecraft—can hold a candle to the value and utility of…the windows.—By Chip Wright