Flying - - Contents - By Peter Gar­ri­son

Syn­thetic ver­sus real

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-thesky” 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 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 at­mos- pher­ics 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.


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