Four course range map
15 min read

And Carole Lombard was lost in a TWA crash.

The great debate about basics v. technology really started a long time ago and I’ll look at what has happened over the years in a minute.

Carole Lombard

Carole Lombard was killed in a DC-3 crash in 1942, after pilots strayed from the magenta line.

But first, Carole Lombard was at one time the highest paid actress in the country and was married to Clark Gable when she died in that TWA DC-3 crash. If you don’t know who Clark Gable was, rent Gone With the Wind and meet him as Rhett Butler.

On January 16, 1942, Lombard was finishing up a first and most successful war bond drive, doing her patriotic duty not long after we entered World War Two. She was in her home state of Indiana and was scheduled to go, along with her party, back to California on the train.

She wanted to fly, though, and TWA Flight 3 was leaving that morning from Indianapolis (it originated in New York) for Burbank with stops at Saint Louis, Albuquerque and Las Vegas. Lombard, her mother and Clark Gable’s press agent boarded the flight in IND and headed west. Airline travel was limited to those with priority because of the war but I guess selling a lot of bonds resulted in priority.

It was dark when they made the Las Vegas stop. The sky was clear. A southwest-bound leg of a four-course low frequency range defined an airway that was headed in their direction. The airways usually had bright beacon lights along the way but most of these had been turned off because of the war.

On the flight plan, the crew indicated they would follow a course of 218 degrees after departing from Vegas, This was ten degrees to the right of the range leg and it was speculated that this course was chosen because it was correct for another airport often used on the flight to Burbank.

The minimum en route altitude on the airway was 8,000 feet, which was the DC-3’s altitude, only it wasn’t flying on the airway. Neither was Mount Potosi, which TWA 3 hit 13 minutes after takeoff, on the airway. All 22 on board died. And, yes, on the charts of the day the range legs, one of which the crew should have followed, were depicted in magenta, just as course lines are today on flight management systems and moving map displays.

Today’s pilots of high tech airplanes have been described as children of the magenta line. I guess that is intended to be derogatory or to at least suggest that they are dedicated to letting technology lead the way instead of using basic flying skills at least some of the time. The crew of TWA 3 had a low tech magenta line to follow but they chose not to. Maybe the curmudgeons who today insist that pilots are enslaved by electronics are direct descendants of the guys from the old days who chose dead (ded, really, for deductive) reckoning over following airways.

The military took over most of the commercial airline fleet for use in the war effort and left the airlines with 160 airplanes, almost all DC-3s, to operate the nationwide airline system. In the three primary war years, 1942, 1943 and 1944, the airlines had five fatal crashes in the U.S. in those DC-3s.

One source I looked at said there are 6,788 commercial airliners operating in this country now. That seems on the low side to me but I’ll use it.

Four course range map

Magenta lines are not a new invention.

If the ratio of airplanes to crashes were the same today as during the war, there would be 212 fatal airline crashes every three years or, 70 per year. Actually there have been none of late. If there had been 70 in the last year the railroads would be back in the passenger business, big time. Does anybody still think that following that magenta line is a bad idea?

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that magenta lines are the only reason that airline flying is so much safer today than it was in the 1940s. Today’s airplanes are far superior in performance and reliability, and training and operational procedures are far better.

However, in looking at the five DC-3 accidents during those war years, it is apparent that today’s high-tech stuff could have prevented most of them. I hasten to add that it has taken a lot of time and money and crashes to reach the point where we are now.

Crashes are a big part of the technology development picture. The FAA has been accused of regulating by smoke and flames and there is some truth to that. Almost every item of high-tech gear in today’s airline aircraft, and in a lot of private aircraft, came about because the technology was available to address a problem area that was identified by crashes.

There were patchwork solutions along the way. A ground proximity warning system was developed years ago that was based on height above the ground, as sensed by a radio altimeter, and the rate of change of that height.

That original GPWS, ground prox for short, likely prevented some accidents but it probably would not have saved TWA 3, Carole Lombard’s flight. Nor was it adequate, years later, to provide enough warning to the crew of an American Airlines 757 maneuvering for an approach in and over the mountains around Cali, Colombia. A navigational error put that airplane in a bad spot, the ground prox sounded off, a pull-up was attempted, and it only missed succeeding by a few feet.

The advent of GPS enabled the development of an enhanced ground prox system with a look-ahead feature based on a terrain and obstacle database in the system. The GPS sees you here, the GPS sees an upcoming mountain in its terrain database, and the ground prox tells you to pull up. It is that simple.

You might see this equipment referred to as TAWS (terrain awareness and warning system) which is a broader umbrella under which the FAA decided to put all such ground prox equipment.

Whatever you call it, the equipment has resulted in a drastic, actually absolute, reduction in the number of domestic airline accidents involving controlled flight into terrain (CFIT). If you pore over accident records you will see that there used to be a lot of those where there are none now.

TAWS screen

Does technology deserve all the credit for eliminating CFIT accidents?

Is 100-percent of this good fortune related to the equipment? I don’t think so. Pilot training improved markedly over this period and that would likely have reduced the number of CFIT accidents but for my money the equipment saved a lot more bacon than did anything else.

In my last technology-embracing airplane upgrade I put a Bendix/King IHAS 8000 in my P210 in 2001. IHAS stands for Integrated Hazard Avoidance System and it includes a Class B TAWS, or, enhanced ground prox. The equipment was required on all new turbine-powered airplanes with six or more passenger seats after 3/29/2005.

What risk did this address in private aviation? At the time, I found 27 fatal accidents in a two-year period that might have been prevented with enhanced ground prox equipment. These CFIT crashes involved three jets, four turboprops, 12 piston twins and eight singles. It was not and is not required for piston airplanes but that is where the greatest potential resided. I flew with it for over five years and once it was calibrated and tweaked it never warned me about anything but it was always looking over my shoulder, in case I fouled up.

About the time this technology was blooming thanks to GPS, we got moving maps and terrain displays. This didn’t constitute a full system but if you see your position in relation to terrain and colors change and warnings appear or sound when it is getting close that should get any pilot’s attention.

Any anti-tech curmudgeon who doesn’t recognize the value of all this is simply not aware of the lives it has saved. Yes, a pilot with a sectional chart could do exactly the same thing but in so many cases it simply wasn’t being done properly. I hasten to add that there have been CFIT accidents in airplanes with electronic terrain displays but they have been relatively rare.

As I contemplated all this I reflected back on the first long charter flight I flew as a young ace of the base. I had only been working for Central Flying Service in Little Rock for a couple of weeks. Central was a Beech dealer so we used Bonanzas for charter. It was 1955 and the only twin Beech was the real one, the Model 18.

The trip was to White Sulphur Springs, WV, to take some folks to a meeting at the Greenbrier, a premier watering hole then and now. There would be two passengers with a stop at Meridian, MS, to pick up a third. As was the case with all single-engine charter the trip would be VFR. That was just as well because my instrument rating was just a month old and had yet to be used in anger.

The Bonanza, N3358V, was an original Model 35, a low serial number (823), and it had seen a lot of use. Some of the other pilots didn’t like to fly the originals – some called them light wing Bonanzas – but I was new and any Bonanza was pretty special.

There was a hiccup approaching Meridian. A passenger asked me about a smell at about the time I detected an electrical smell. Something was definitely hot. The generator had melted down. I called Central and they sent another Bonanza, a C35, N5846C. The pilot who brought it got ol’ 58V running and flew back to Little Rick with the gear down, to get the generator repair done there.

Old Greenbrier airport

The old Greenbrier airport was surrounded by mountains on all sides. (Image courtesy of Paul Freeman)

The reason this is pertinent is that it would make the Greenbrier arrival later in the day, nearing dusk, and the weather in that part of West Virginia wasn’t too good. The runway (now gone) at the Greenbrier was in a valley and my study of the chart suggested that I should be able to stay over a valley all the way through the mountains.

It was my first venture into the eastern mountains. Back home in Arkansas we had mountains but there were only two places, Hot Springs and Fayetteville, many people wanted to go and most charter operators would fly to those place only in good weather.

It was murky and I was on high alert as I did the old finger on the map method of navigation in making my way up valleys and toward the Greenbrier airport. The runway appeared when I expected it to but there was a surprise. The valley was none too wide and I couldn’t see the runway after I moved to one side for a downwind leg. It did notice, though, that there was a golf course just east of the east-west runway so I maneuvered to arrive over the golf course on a westerly heading and there was the runway, straight ahead and ready for a landing.

I didn’t realize until after landing how tense I had been in that last 30 or 40 minutes of intense concentration. I felt wobbly for a few minutes.

Would that have been easier and at lower risk with a moving map and ground prox? You bet. Many, many times better.

We could and did manage things like this but there were bad wrecks along the way. A lot of highly experienced pilots were lost while scud running in the eastern mountains and a lot of them were of the type you would say knew the terrain like the back of their hand. But there was no way for them to know it as well as an enhanced ground prog does.

The other electronic marvel that has undoubtedly saved a lot of bacon is the one that deals with other traffic. In full-up form it is a TCAS, for traffic collision avoidance system; in simpler form it is still called a TCAS but provides only a picture of other traffic, with altitude, and traffic warnings where the full system commands avoidance maneuvers.

The need for this was proven by a substantial number of collisions between air carrier and military and private aircraft. The hue and cry over this was so strident that the FAA first took steps to separate traffic by regulatory means (TCAs which became Class B) and later by mandating TCAS for air carriers. There were times when it appeared that these collisions could result in much more serious restrictions on private aircraft operations. There was even a call for the prohibition of much VFR flying. In the end, this equipment might have helped avoid crippling restrictions.

Back to the magenta line.

iPad Mini in airplane

This does make it easier to see the big picture, but pilots did it for decades before the iPad came around.

I know it seems almost revolutionary that we can have charts and moving maps and all the other good things that constitute the big picture on an iPad and it does make me think of the other ways we did this over the years.

When I was working with my father at the original Air Facts, in the 1960s, he returned from one of our frequent Wichita (hotbed of aviation activity at the time) trips with a tale to tell. He had flown from Cessna Field in Wichita to our base at Trenton, NJ, without looking at a map or using the avionics except to call the tower at Trenton at the conclusion of the trip.

I think he wanted me to ask how he had done that but I didn’t ask because I knew the answer: He knew the way.

You can guess what followed. The next time I was in Wichita, and the weather was mostly clear for the return home to Trenton, I fired up the engine but not the avionics, left the charts on the floor, and flew home to Trenton. I knew the way, too.

In a sense, doing that was a bit like using a moving map today. The towns and cities and countryside moved beneath the airplane, which was exactly where it was the whole way back. I just had to always know the present position of the airplane. Navigational computations were done out of familiarity and I even knew the name of the airport (Shelbyville, Indiana) where I bought fuel along the way. A furtive glance at the credit card slip to see where I had landed would have lowered my grade for the day.

I’m not telling you that to belittle moving map displays but to illustrate that years ago at least some pilots flew with the big picture, but in mind and not on a screen. My father and I knew the way from Wichita to Trenton but today any pilot can know the way to anywhere with a moving map. Also, there is a heap more regulated airspace now than there was then and navigating by memory could get you into trouble with the FAA.

I think Airbus developed the high tech automation for their airliners because Boeing was entrenched in much of the world and, in the beginning, Airbus would be nibbling at the edges. Airlines in developing countries had historically hired western crews to fly for them but they wanted to crew their airplanes with home-grown pilots. Because folks in a lot of areas grow up without exposure to mechanical devices, there was a big challenge there. Automation was the answer.

When the Asiana 777 hit the seawall at SFO much was made of the fact that the crew was unable, on a clear day, to fly a visual approach to a long runway without a functioning glidepath. That shouldn’t have been a surprise, though. When American pilots saddle up an airliner, they have flown thousands of visual approached in light airplanes. There is no private flying in Korea, or in a lot of other countries that are choosing to crew airliners with locals, so the pilots there have little or no basic flying background. They learn to operate the airplane through computers, not to fly it.

What that means is that high-tech equipment was developed both because of crashes and what was perceived as a necessity to automate the airplanes. If you travel the world and are uncomfortable with this, choose your airline carefully and with full knowledge that the folks up front might be more systems operators than pilots as we know them. If programming is correct and if everything works, excellent. I would add that if a frog had wings he wouldn’t bump his butt every time he jumped.

J3 Cub ride

Now that’s real honest-to-gosh flying.

There are other technology benefits in light airplanes. Gone are vacuum pumps and those shaky old gyro instruments. The instrument panel looks like today’s video game instead of like something in a World War Two bomber. The information a pilot can gather and display on the screen is pretty special, too.

I’m an old guy, but I am here to tell you that the curmudgeons who argue against high-tech are going to lose the argument. The good old days are not coming back and the people who use and depend on advanced equipment are the future whether we like it or not.

For any pilot, though, young or old, we can pick and choose how much high-tech equipment we want to use. The basics are still here to enjoy. If you want to do some flying that is more real than the automated stuff, do what Steve Ellis memorialized in our Friday Photo feature for 11/04/2016. He took 12-year old Luke Kallaher for his first airplane ride in a J-3, windows and door opened. Talk about fun, that is fun.

If you are a curmudgeon and want to prove a point, put that picture beside one of a lit-up Cirrus glass cockpit and ask any pilot which picture reflects real honest-to-gosh flying.

Richard Collins
14 replies
  1. Ed
    Ed says:

    The technology may draw the magenta line, but it’s still up to the pilot to ensure it’s drawn in the right place!

  2. G. Stuart Mendenhall
    G. Stuart Mendenhall says:

    Great article and summary without any of the ridiculous “agendas” that some commentators bring to the table. Technological advancements provide good tools, many of which save lives, and many of which can be abused or relied upon to a fault.

    Many pilots become systems monitors, but that is thankfully not by necessity, at least in America! I’ve spent many an afternoon doing aerobatics in a citabria, or just (safely) experimenting with stick and rudder flight, or playing games to improve my flying precision. Those interested will find a way, and those that view it as a chore or dangerous will increasingly lean on the automation.

  3. MaxAirspace
    MaxAirspace says:

    the result of all this technology should be more pilots flying….wonder why that isn’t happening….more tech, more cost, fewer plane drivers….can’t afford to fly that Ferrari?

    • Ed
      Ed says:

      What correlation do you imagine leads from “all this technology” to “more pilots flying”? It sounds more like a fictitious setup so that you can then use it to make a negative correlation to cost.
      The fact is, technology has not been a major factor that drives increasing costs of flying. Regulation and insurance have repeatedly been determined to drive these costs.
      My local flight school had a few aircraft with advanced technology, but they also had a C152, a J-3 Cub, and a pair of basic C172s on the flight line. A student pilot or renter can always opt to fly the less expensive aircraft, with or without technology.

  4. John Banas
    John Banas says:

    As usual, great and thought provoking article, Mr. Collins.

    I learned to fly in 1979, so I guess that makes me a “Grandfather of the magenta line”. I have heard, as I presume you have too, so much debate on whether or not we have become button pushers instead of pilots.

    In my humble opinion, it’s a moot point. Am I not a pilot because I fly in an all metal, enclosed cockpit aircraft without a leather helmet, goggles and long trailing white scarf? Am I a “button pusher” because I don’t lie on my belly and warp the wings to bank?

    No. While I still fly with an analog (steam gauge – round gauge) cockpit, I am no more a pilot than the newly minted G1000 guy. I train for engine failure in case, you know, that piece of high tech equipment that spins the pilot-cooling fan in front of the airplane, fails. I recognize that any tech, high or low, can fail me when I need it the most.

    So, I plan my flights accordingly. I review each airport I fly out of and in to on Google Earth to pick out possible (but perhaps dated) options in case of an emergency.

    Whoops – my inner button pusher is showing…

    What we need to recognize, is that the “magenta line” painting technology is just that – a model, a convenience, much like that new Lycoming, and can fail.

    And that’s my point, a PILOT takes advantage of the latest advances to ease and protect their lives; but trains for the moment we are deprived of those labor and life saving devices’ use. THAT’S what makes us pilots versus being button pushers. A pilot THINKS.

    • Duane Truitt
      Duane Truitt says:

      ALL aircraft pilots are “button pushers” flying “high technology” aircraft, even the J-3 pilots and the Wright brothers.

      Alas, none of us humans was ever born with a pair of wings. We all rely on high technology to get into the air.

      All flying is good, all aircraft that can fly are good. Different strokes for different folks.

  5. John Dill
    John Dill says:

    I was a controller for 30 years and witnessed the difficulty pilots had with situational awareness before high tech arrived. Getting lost, for VFR pilots, was a common occurrence, and they would call us for help quite often. I fly a small single now, and use my iPad with ForeFlight and I know exactly where I am at all times and know the location of every hazard to flight. Flying for me is MUCH safer now. Thank you Mr. Collins for your years of helping keep it so.

  6. Cary ALBURN
    Cary ALBURN says:

    While reading the article, I couldn’t help but recall one of my own Part 135 SE charter flights in 1986, a long time after 1942 but with technology not a whole lot better in the Skylane we were using–it was minimally equipped with a single navcom, an ADF, and a transponder–and of course we were flying VFR–although all SE charter pilots were required to be instrument current, we weren’t allowed to file IFR or fly in IMC except in an emergency. I flew my passenger from Laramie to Jackson, and he asked me to stay at the airport because he didn’t know how long he’d be.

    Normally, a Laramie to Jackson and return flight could be made in a Skylane without refueling, with ample reserves. Fortunately, as you’ll see in a moment, I decided to have the airplane refueled while I was waiting, anyway.

    My passenger had been pretty non-communicative on the way up, but his meeting at Jackson had been successful, so he was pretty jubilant. As we boarded the airplane to return, he said, “Cary, I was a navigator in the Navy–do you think I could navigate us home?” So I handed him my plotter, my whiz-wheel, and a sectional, and said, “Have at it–you just tell me what headings to fly.”

    Well, his navigation skills had totally atrophied, because he kept giving me headings that didn’t make much sense. After awhile and a whole lot of zig-zagging, he said, “Cary, I have to confess. I think I’ve gotten us hopelessly lost.”

    But like you and your Dad on the Trenton flights, Richard, I knew the territory, and I had kept track of where we were. I said, “Nope, because that’s Pinedale right down there.” We’d spent well more than an hour going less than 30 minutes from Jackson, and we were way off course, but getting home was easy from there–and with plenty of fuel remaining. Needless to say, he insisted that I do the navigating, which I was happy to do.

    Incidentally, I bumped into my passenger about 1 1/2 years ago, and we shared our memories about his ill-fated attempt to navigate us almost 30 years earlier.

    Now in my somewhat ancient 1963 P172D, I have the necessary bells and whistles to fly in any of today’s and tomorrow’s airspace. But I still spend much of my flying time looking out the windows, navigating by looking at God’s moving map. It’s still the most rewarding way to go.

  7. Jack
    Jack says:

    Great article, I didn’t realize the old sectionals used Magenta lines for courses and maybe this explains why the original hand held Garmin GPS and Foreflight iPad app use magenta to depict the current course leg. (I never understood why this might be until this article.)

    After getting my private license, long ago, I did some night flying (legal in the USA under VFR) and got a real surprise. Using the red cockpit lighting to preserve night vision, I discovered that anything depicted in magenta became very faint and difficult to see. So non controlled airports (and their text) as well as 20nm contact approach frequencies became almost invisible. Controlled airports and their text as well as NAV aids, obstructions, etc. were depicted using dark blue ink which was easy to read under red lighting. So, I had to resort to using the white cockpit lights if I wanted to know about all the uncontrolled stuff or to contact approach.

    Again quite a while back, before the advent of colored screen moving map technology, I attended an FAA seminar on aeronautical charts. I mentioned this problem with magenta to one of their cartographers, but other than suggesting all text be printed in black I didn’t have a good solution.

    Just for fun, I took my iPad into a dark clothes closet. Using only my emergency red flashlight from my flight bag, the screen was bright enough that the magenta figures on the screen were easy to read, just like in daylight. But when I put a paper sectional under the red beam of my flashlight, the magenta objects became very dull and faded. It was a struggle to read any of the text, yet the dark blue objects stood out and their text was much easier to read. The back lighting of these screens makes all the difference. And you can use the night mode of the iPad to help preserve night vision.

  8. Larry Nelson
    Larry Nelson says:

    Ed. while i do agree that moving maps with GPS position are vastly better than paper charts, I disagree that all tech that moves into the cockpit is a good thing. I have about 100hours now and have begun trying to use my ADSB-In system. Every time i use it i find that i spent way to much time looking at my IPAD and I actually get behind the airplane. last time i used it i ended up in two upset situations that I had to correct quickly. Since then I have vowed to end the usage of ADSB-In (for me).

  9. David Megginson
    David Megginson says:

    I agree with article over all—great work, and good, non-polarised discussion—but I take a bit of issue with the example.

    While it’s true that they should have checked and followed the airway, I think you could equally-well argue that the 1942 crash was very similar to the result of “following the magenta” in modern accidents. If the crew had plotted a course on a paper chart, they likely would have seen that Mt Potosi was in their path; instead, they blindly followed a magenta line pre-programmed into their heads for a different airport, like a modern pilot blindly following the course line on a mis-programmed GPS (e.g. direct to the wrong waypoint).

  10. Joe
    Joe says:

    For the more adventurous, one can hike up Potosi to the site. I was up there a couple years ago. Humbling, DC3 parts are still littered around up there, mostly the steel parts left after other recycling efforts. The hike is extremely steep causing trouble up and down. You do have to leave the trail, drop through some rough ground, traverse, then drop through a class 2 gully. In the gully, knocking a rock loose and it rolls downhill and never seems to stop, so steep.

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