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