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Navigator Not Required

Are you, Dear Reader, the Pilot who wakes up to her smart phone or tablet to check your emails or Facebook? If yes, as “Aviation Provocateur”* I would say that you do not need to learn traditional navigator skills any more.

Ask the question why are pilots required to learn navigations skills. Because they get lost! Even highly trained and experienced pilots continue to get lost even today due to various reasons.

Lets go back in history to a larger, holistic picture of why navigation skills were important and taught to all “hunter gatherers”. It was an essential part of staying alive, finding food and water and returning with a mate. These skills were taught by word of mouth, by imitation, by rote, by repetition, by obeying gods, etc.

When floating across oceans on wooden logs became non-accidental, it was easy to get lost and dead if you went out of sight of the coastline, as there were no identifiable markers to know your own position. When getting lost and straying into another tribal territory meant death or slavery; trees, mountains, rivers and some stars were given names and had stories attached to them. These were passed on every night around campfires. You might describe this as a daily intensive course in navigation, which applied to everything everyone, did every day or night.

Skipping ahead a few millennia, with the advent of the sailing ship capable of leaving the shoreline far out of sight, getting lost continued to be easy, despite the knowledge of star positions because there was not the ability to keep time accurately. It was only with the ability to know the accurate time that sailors were able to calculate their “own ship” position within an acceptable margin of error. On board these vessels, there was a highly trained (and experienced) Navigator/Captain who kept his knowledge to himself as an important and highly valued skill.

Map making skills on land were a combination of myths and stories told by travellers to map makers, who made some wonderfully inaccurate maps which are fascinating to read today, with the certainty that the earth is not flat.

When the aeroplane was invented and pilots started flying away from home, they followed roads, railways, rivers, coastlines with no aerial maps to help them navigate to their destination or to return to their starting point. Many towns in America started painting the name of the town on the large and easily visible water tower to help pilots navigate.

During the Second World War, maps were state secrets. Land maps were issued to (highly trained) navigators with a target to bomb, and pilots followed the instructions of the navigators. Since that era onwards, the advances in aeroplane ranges, speeds and endurance have multiplied tremendously. Every nation on the planet has its own land space and its own “airspace”. These borders are invisible to the natural eye of any living being on the planet.

In our modern, multi-informational environment, there are many means in our pockets that help us stop from being lost. The smart phone and the smart tablet, not only allow the owner to process information, communicate, transfer money and pictures, but it also allows many agencies and governments to collect your personal data and location instantly and constantly.

Given the above information and modern tools, Dear Aviator, why would you want to learn to Navigate in the same manner as the previous 5 generations of Aviators did. Almost all of us have the capability with our smart phones, never to be lost or to be unaware of the time.

The Circular Slide Rule, the Scale Ruler, the Protractor, the China Graph Pencil, the Paper Map are now all relics of the past. They have always been difficult to learn, without constant practice, without guidance from instructors, without spending expensive airtime to practice navigation flights, without the risk of getting lost or busting airspace, without the risk of mid air collision whilst looking down at the map.

A major disadvantage of the paper map is that the letters and numbers are too small to read for the average 50 years or older pilot. The demographic for the hobby or sport pilot all over the world is the same; we are getting older, with weaker eyesight, suffering from hearing loss and lack of bladder control. Lets not add to these disadvantages by having to struggle to map read in the cockpit. Remember that a large majority of Microlight and SSDR/SSEA/LAPL pilots fly on a self declared medical which means there is no quality control of eye sight, hearing and mental or physical ability to be a safe pilot.

Thus, one should learn to use the smart phone or tablet based navigation app with an always current map which shows accurately your “own ship” position at all times. This also shows the correct time, the distance travelled with a snail trail and the distance and time to reach your destination. These were the “pearls of knowledge” that ancient mariners and aviators strived to constantly improve and enhance with practice.

Many governments and businesses have launched satellites and developed detailed maps of our planet. These are available free or at a fraction of the cost of equivalent paper maps. The layers of airspace and ground information can actually be seen in cross sections and in great detail when zoomed in or tapped upon to reveal more information. A paper map is out of date on the day it is printed.

Every one knows how a GPS works, but I will emphasise here that the satellite does not tell you where you are. All it does is send an accurate time signal, which is gathered by your smart phone and processed by your navigation app to display your own ship position on the moving map. Problem solved. You know where you are at all times.

This reduces the workload and allows the Pilot to perform other duties such as speaking on the radio to ATC and even enjoy the flying to a larger extent, without the worry of getting lost. The presence of national and international airspace due to the large increase of air traffic, drone traffic and private aviation along with the added layer of conflicts and security risks has made the modern Private Pilot’s job more difficult in planning and executing every flight, whether it be the typical summer afternoon bimble or an international flight.

At the beginning, I asked the question if you check your smart phone or tablet upon waking up every day. This has become the new routine for many of us, especially Aviators and Sailors who intend to play or work in their fluid environment. It should become a routine part of the Aviator’s daily task to check the weather on the television (the BBC’s new weather forecast graphics are superbly improved), NOTAMs for their planned route and to update their favourite navigation app.

Naturally, the Aviator must know how to use the navigation app. These are like all modern apps, easy to use, with many layers of information available to the Pilot as required. Most importantly the navigation apps continuously show the “own ship” position on the map, which reduces the workload for the Pilot, making the flight safer. All the apps have a print out facility enabling the pilot to carry an up-to-date map and pilot log to follow in case of electronic failure.

The very reason to learn navigation by traditional methods is eliminated by the continuous knowledge of where you are in a pictorial and three-dimensional map. The nature of airspace has changed dramatically in the UK and around the world, with controlled zones being added continuously, with radio frequencies being changed frequently, NOTAMs being promulgated daily. It is simply not possible, within a reasonable time, to collate all the information required to plan and execute a safe flight. When using a Navigation App, all the necessary information required to plan your flight are immediately available to the Pilot.

There are those who ask the hoary old question “what happens when the battery fails”. Airmanship and ability are not lost when the Pilot is well prepared before the flight. A simple radio call on 121.500 or setting 7700 on the transponder will help. More options and multiple instrument failure scenarios have to be thought through before the flight, just as one does before every flight.

Relying on moving maps and iPads does not mean that the pilot will not need to learn about Geography, Map reading, Meteorology, Air Law, Human Performance and Aircraft Technical subjects, but will enable students and new pilots to concentrate more on aircraft handling skills, communicate with ATC and other aircraft, avoid mid air collisions, whilst they build up experience in the wonderful environment that the Aerial Ocean offers them.

Microlight and sports aircraft have of course evolved as a separate, revolutionary and disruptive branch of aviation. We have seen the design and adoption of new engines, propellers, avionics and aircraft design that have stayed out of the very expensive regulatory regimes. We have seen Microlight aircraft go around the Globe many times, fly over Everest and skim over fast flowing rivers in deep gorges. Even fly under bridges and disappear into the ether…

What is it now that makes us so conservative in our adoption of new and safer means to navigate? Have we lost our Microlight Mojo?

Deepak Mahajan.

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