Old School in a Changing World

IMAG1920The ground is ever shifting beneath our feet.  But lately it seems to be tilting in a way that makes many of us feel old and in the way.  In recent months, we have learned that many of the functions and products with which we grew up in aviation are going away or already gone.  The NDB approaches that were the vexation of instrument students and the mainstay of instrument navigation in the more remote corners of the world are blinking out like stars at dawn.  VOR approaches are beginning to follow.  Approaches that have been familiar streets at familiar airports simply disappear from one chart cycle to the next.   The FAA has announced its intention not to renew the contract of one of the two providers of DUATS, the first online weather and flight planning service many of us ever saw and for years the best source of aviation weather on the internet.  WAC charts, World Aeronautical Charts, the 1:million large-scale visual charts many of us relied on for planning long flights are being discontinued.  Most will be printed for the last time in September and the rest will be gone by early 2016.  Before we flew behind an EFIS (Electronic Flight Information System) aka glass panel, there was the EFAS, the Enroute Flight Advisory Service, the function of Flight Service tasked with providing updated weather information to pilots in flight.  (Look at the back page of your AF/D.)  Before the Ipad, before ADS-B, before inflight Nexrad weather, we called “Flight Watch,” as it was known in the vernacular, on 122.0 to find out what was happening along our route and around the bend.  That frequency, memorized by student pilots for years, will be discontinued on 1 October this year (although the service will be available on the normal FSS frequencies found on sectional charts).   At the same time, the familiar flight plan format, which is now known as the “domestic” format in contrast to the international or ICAO format, will be discontinued.  Yes, some of these changes are still being resisted and contested, but they have all been announced and will inevitably occur eventually.

The Practical Test Standards for pilot certification, the little red book of the checkride, are also going away, or rather being subsumed by a new set of Airman Certification Standards for each certificate and rating in the most global rewrite of pilot certification requirements in my several decades of flying and instructing.  (Topic for another day.)

Do I lament some of these changes?  Of course.  I adore paper charts.  They hang on my wall where others hang paintings.  WAC charts are beautiful objects and remain useful for flight planning.  It is powerful to be able to pinch and zoom in and out on a tablet – but when one zooms out far enough to see an entire route of a thousand miles detail is lost or unreadable.  But inevitably, electronic charts will replace paper charts, which are expensive to produce and are sold in ever-diminishing quantities.  See the proposal in the Federal Register to discontinue WAC charts in June 2015.  I miss the approaches of my memory – the RNAV rho-theta approach to runway nine at Chapel Hill that was our first exposure to the miracle of area navigation long before GPS or even LORAN.  But when the weather goes down and the rain is pelting the airplane and the visibility is measured in feet, I would rather have the marvelous LPV approaches of which our club airplanes are now capable.  They are as effective as an ILS and even more stable.

For twenty or so years, general aviation airplane designs were largely static.  Engines remained the same 1930s-era, leaded-gas burning, magneto-fired, air-cooled, low-revving, direct-drive beasts.  Airframes remained the same semi-monocoque aluminum spam cans, the King nav/com remained the state of avionic sophistication and RNAV meant dead reckoning. Suddenly, as the century turned, the logjam broke and we now see innovation in general aviation design, with composite materials, laminar flow wings, GPS RNAV approach and enroute capability, engine manufacturers and designers experimenting with liquid-cooled engines, geared engines, diesel engines, electronic ignitions, even electrical power, and avionics exploding with onboard weather, moving maps and touch-screen displays.

We are pilots in part because we love to learn and new tools and systems and capabilities bring opportunities to learn.  And, used properly, and only if used properly, they can make our flying safer.  (That’s a choice we make – and a subject for another talk.)

So, here’s the thing …. How do we find our way as pilots and as a club and as a training program in a rapidly changing world?    We try to honor the eternal verities while embracing change where it is useful.  The club where I teach routinely reassesses the composition of our fleet and questions whether one of the newer airplane designs would make a better training vehicle.  We will, we have decided, continue to do most of our primary training in the Cessna 152, which is a simple, but classic airplane that will never have an EFIS but has proven over the years, because it is an honest airplane, to be a platform that turns out capable pilots, pilots who know and understand angle of attack, who are comfortable with a fully stalled wing and know how to avoid it when unintended and manage it when invoked.   The admirably rugged 152 has probably transitioned more pilots to larger airplanes and flying careers than any airplane ever built and will continue to do so at the club for many years.  It is old school in the best sense.

At the same time, the club made a major investment in state-of-the art Garmin WAAS GPS/comm./nav 650 and 750 touch-screen navigation and communication products that provide club instrument pilots access to the thousands of RNAV approaches being commissioned.  (There are now more LPV approaches than ILS approaches in the U.S.)   As we speak, the club is planning for compliance to the 2012 ADS-B Out mandate, which will be expensive but will keep the club’s fleet compatible with changes to the national airspace system, maintain our access to controlled airspace and, we hope, provide additional services and safety benefits to club pilots.  Where change is truly progress, we want to be there.

We will teach each other to take advantage of the electronic charting and flight planning tools available through the software innovation wrought by tablet devices.  The club has welcomed one of the principles of Foreflight to address one of our safety night meetings.  We have among us a number of curious and innovative early adopters who will lead the rest of us into the future of personal avionics

And yet, in the club ground school, our students will learn to wield an aluminum E6B to calculate fuel burns and time-and-distance problems and time en route and density altitude and wind correction angles and all of the other elements of flight planning.  We believe that the ability to comprehend those calculations as more than numbers generated by software is essential to understanding where they come from and what they mean.  (Just to be clear, we are not averse to modernization.  Reluctantly, we will be dropping the low frequency radio range and the sextant from future ground school classes.)

We will teach our students the basic aerodynamics of flight by looking at the wing and the world because we believe that when they come to understand that a given power and a given configuration and a given angle of attack produce a predictable result they will be equipped to fly behind an EFIS and a turbine engine, or a set of steam gauges in a well-equipped Skyhawk or Mooney,  or nothing more than needle, ball, airspeed and a mag compass in a Cub or Champ.  It is not a coincidence that both the best book about flying small airplanes (all airplanes, really), Stick and Rudder, and arguably the best book about flying transport category jets, Fly the Wing, are mostly about understanding the wing.

And we will teach our students to lay out a sectional chart and draw a course line and adjust for winds and density altitude and fly that course with nothing more than a sectional chart, a watch, and a compass because we believe that they will be then prepared to understand whatever new navigation system comes along in their lifetime, be it GPS or whatever comes next.

Here’s a true story.  Years ago, in the early days of GPS navigation for GA airplanes, including ours, I taught a young man to fly.  He was ready for his checkride but needed another hour or so of dual cross country time, so together we flew at night to somewhere in Virginia.  On the return flight, I pointed to the early Apollo GPS we had in our panel, which he and I had never used before, and I said, “As long as we have time, I will show you how to use the GPS.”  I taught him how to program a direct route and fly it with a few pushes of the buttons.  He grew irate and all but accused me of prolonging his training and wasting his time and money by compelling him to flight plan the old fashioned way, with pencil and chart.  I let his sense of outrage run its course and then asked him, “If you had not drawn a wind triangle and figured your groundspeed and heading from a chart, would you have immediately understood, as you did here just now, the distinction between DTK and TRK and BRG and HDG and GS and IAS?  He grumblingly agreed.  He didn’t sound wholly persuaded, but I knew the answer.  If he ever becomes an instructor, he will, too.

And so thusly we will continue to train at the club:  teaching the old school principles and techniques that we believe are at the root of understanding airmanship while embracing new technologies, keeping abreast of new techniques and regulations, and flying proven airplanes that we believe are safe, cost-effective and represent good value   We will be a bridge across which we will carry the eternal verities into what we hope will be the bright and exciting future of general aviation.

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