July 25, 2014

Pilotage in a Digital Age

pilotage-scavenger-hunt.jpgWhen was the last time you were lost in a General Aviation aircraft? The thought of it is quite frightening. However, not too long ago it was not that uncommon to be "lost" or as I would prefer to say temporarily in an unidentified location. When I started flight training for my Private Pilot Certificate in 2004 I spent many flights trying to navigate from point A to point B with little else than a beat-up sectional. Often, I would be overly confident that I was right on target only to realize checkpoints were no longer matching up. I would then need to start to analyze my surroundings and try and reconfirm my location so I could adapt my route and get back on course. It was almost always fun.

With the advancement in technology it is harder and harder to get lost in a GA Aircraft. Many airplanes have the benefit of some advance moving map not to mention that many pilots are carrying an additional moving map on their iPad both of which can pinpoint your location to within a few feet.

It has probably been four or five years since I have flown a flight using Pilotage, the last reference to me flying by way of pilotage on this blog was back in 2006! Effectively, Pilotage is the use of fixed visual reference on the ground by means of sight to guide oneself to a destination. I was due up for a biennial flight review and my CFI, Al Waterloo, suggested we spend the first half of the flight on a pilotage scavenger hunt. Using Foreflight he selected a few random points on a sectional for me to fly to. The first was to find my way to a set of towers in Southern Wisconsin, then change course and find a small private grass strip airport after which we would continue on with the BFR flight. I have not owned a sectional in many years, kind of a sorry statement, so I had him send me the coordinates of the two locations which I loaded into my iPad before turning it to airplane mode.

sunset-on-the-wing.jpgIn the Archer we agreed we would keep Multifunction Flight Display (MFD) on the engine page so as not to have the benefit of the moving map. After take-off, I leveled off at 1,500 and I put the airplane on course to the first checkpoint along our route. The first checkpoint was easy to find but it arrived off the side of our airplane indicating that the wind was stronger than I had anticipated and I need to course correct to keep on track. As we moved north from Chicago towards the Wisconsin border I lost the benefit of the detailed Terminal Area Chart and there were fewer and fewer obvious landmarks. It was fun once again spending time looking out the window looking for things that might be depicted on the chart then trying to orient myself. You forget how roads, lakes and towns can look so similar. Sure enough though about 25 minutes later and countless power lines, train tracks, towns and airports used as references we flew right over the first landmark the stacks near Sullivan, WI. There was a gorgeous sunset taking place outside as we departed the first checkpoint.

From there I turned us south and followed a road, then train tracks and finally power lines which led me to the general area of the next spot on the scavenger hunt, Hacklander (PVT) just west of Janesville, that like the first landmark was identified without any challenges. As we were approaching Hacklander we started to take on some rain and see some disconcerting changes in colors in the clouds so we decided to sneak a peek at the MFD to check on the weather, but then again turned it back to the engine page so I could navigate to Kenosha International Airport via pilotage. Enroute to Kenosha we enjoyed watching a distant thunderstorm light up the early evening sky.

Growing up I always loved looking at maps and that has not changed. During my training I loved the night before a cross-country sitting at a table with sectionals spread-out and drawing my routes and noting landmarks for checkpoints. I realized on this flight how in this digital age we lose out on honing that skill and the fun that comes with it.

I encourage you to create your own pilotage scavenger hunts and test your pilotage skills. I am sure you will enjoy it, I know I did.

Posted by at July 25, 2014 7:30 AM
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