The best instrument there is

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


  1. Well, Chip had me guessing right to the end….what could he possibly find more important than all that stuff….then the duh moment.
    Windows, yeah well we do need those. Or do we ?? They sure are nice to have. The whole see and avoid business does get tricky if we don’t. For many of us the “view from above” is the main reason why we subject ourself to all the regulation and willingly hand over our life savings when the fuel tanks need filling.
    But then other times we may take off in poor visibility,legally it can be so bad we could not land at the departure airport, fly an entire flight solidly in the soup guided by all that fancy gadgetry on our panels, our friends at ATC and hopefully our IFR skills and finally land at minimums of an ILS and then carefully taxi to the ramp.
    Yes we still do need th windows for a short time in that scenario as well, but that is because most of us don’t have GA aircraft that are equipped to fly CATIII approaches or have approved FLIR


  2. I was sure he was going for “the human brain”.

  3. This article too had me guessing all the way to the end. I am fairly new to the aviation world having only been a pilot for eight years but it is amazing to see how the world of flight evolved in such a short amount of time. As a military rotary-wing aviator (UH-60 Blackhawk) you can imagine all the bells and whistles that go along with this aircraft. No matter how many new “modifications” the Army chooses to upgrade the aircraft, I try to never forget that other important “instrument” in the helicopter – the human brain.
    While certainly not downplaying the importance of the aircraft windows (because without them our brains could not interpret signals) but almost weekly it seems I hear of a story, watch on the news, or talk with fellow aviators of situations in the cockpit where pilots simply forget to think. AOPA most definitely features many of these stories; real-life situations that make me think where I place myself in that pilot’s shoes. Now while hindsight is always 20-20 aviation safety experts prove time and again that if we could break just one link in that “accident chain” we can curtail aircraft damage, injury, or worse.
    I too have fallen victim to this – failing to listen or follow this vital instrument (human brain) in the cockpit. A flight of two, we had just returned from a Medevac mission responding to an injured child in Afghanistan. The child was in critical condition. Upon landing at the combat support hospital we received a call over the radio that we were to return to the pickup site and bring this child’s family to the hospital for care. On this night, as is the case of many in southeast Afghanistan there was virtually zero ambient light making it even tougher to see through my night vision goggles. But in the fog of war and anxiousness of the wee hours of the morning we took off on our second trip to the site. The route out and pickup of our passengers was uneventful but return back to the hospital was quite different. Upon takeoff along our route of about twenty five minutes I noticed a fog layer beginning to build. As with many articles I read through AOPA a major cause of aviation accidents is through CFIT. Here my brain (key instrument in the cockpit) failed me. I began climbing (my flight was through a valley) to avoid the fog layer building and to climb above the seven thousand plus foot ridges on either side. I continued this climb until I was at almost eight thousand feet. It began to get harder and harder to see. I knew I was clear of the ridges, but would have a challenging approach to the base even with the emergency instrument approach available.
    Then almost instantly it hit me– that vital cockpit instrument kicked in, my brain. I had an AH-64 Apache helicopter as my sister aircraft with more advanced optics on board than I did. I swallowed my pride, and made the radio call back for him to take lead, step us back down in altitude, and lead the way back to base. We continued the flight without incident and I was glad to have the other aircraft that night.
    Though our safety wasn’t in question and we could have used the emergency approach back into the base, why not use that powerful computing machine inside my skull to accomplish the mission. It took me to step back and think and use all available assets at my disposal to complete the mission in the most efficient and effective manner. It just goes to show that even with all the gee-whiz gadgets and instruments inside today’s technologically advanced aircraft – military and civilian alike, we cannot forget that one of the most useful instruments available to the pilot is his or her brain.

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