Flying old school

The Alaska Airlines pilot on our very recent commercial flight to Tucson announced that our departure would be slightly delayed, as the crew had to program the flight to Tucson into the new navigation computer. I chuckled to myself. Flying 1050nm on a course of 130 degrees will take you right over the middle of the Grand Canyon, you will pass just east of Sky Harbor International Airport at Phoenix, and be on target for Tucson International.

I am an Old School pilot. I don’t have a sophisticated, built-in navigational system, nor even an autopilot in our plane. That does not mean I do not know how to fly a 530, but I learned to fly on a float plane on Lake Union in Seattle when I was 19 and the experience formed much of my view of flying. The chief pilot, Capt. Cook, was an Alaska bush pilot. The old Chief had no electrical system, no radio or navigational aid except a compass. The starter was an Armstrong: you pushed off from the dock, then standing on the floats you hand propped the engine.

My first cross country to Friday Harbor, maybe 80 miles away, took 1.5 hours. Captain Cook told me always to know where I was by dead reckoning. He taught me how to use a compass. He also taught me how to land a seaplane on any little strip of water. At Friday Harbor, the old floats leaked so badly I could only get a cup of coffee before I had to pump them out and take off before the plane sunk.

There are some advantages to Old School navigation.

I laugh, as I mentioned the instruction has molded much of my flying life, but it also saved my life more than once. I can dead reckon using a compass and distance to determine my course and clearance of obstacles. The only time I have not been able to hit a target by dead reckoning was on a flight from Barranquilla, Colombia, to Nassau, Bahamas, at night. The VOR worked at Barranquilla, but only for about 50 miles. I couldn’t pick up any of the navigational aids of Haiti or the Dominican Republic. It was before GPS, I didn’t have a Loran. So taking into account the trade winds (I figured 25 knots of wind), I merrily flew for Nassau, planning to pass over Port-au-Prince.

I knew there was something wrong when, all of a sudden out of the blackness, approach lights appeared. There were NO airports on my course until the Haitian capital, certainly nothing on the southern coast. The wind was so strong I was blown at least 125 miles off course and was on the approach for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. There was a thunderstorm ahead so rather than return to the east and overfly Haiti, I decided just to overfly Cuba without talking to Cuba. The storm hid the plane from the MIGs (remember to keep the winds level when passing through a thunderstorm). Best to avoid them. We did get to Nassau just fine, even if there was about nine inches of water on the rain soaked runway and the plane decelerated REALLY fast.

Old School dead reckoning navigation does work, and since our plane is 73 years old, has no autopilot, and old radios, it is a good thing. In the last six years, we have flown it from Seattle throughout the Caribbean, to Haiti, to Venezuela, to Colombia, to the Dominican Republic, as well as to Mexico four or five times and twice to Central America. Belize was a favorite stop, even if the airport officials are morons. The approach into Tegucigalpa, Honduras, is worth looking up. Not for the faint hearted.

A cool part of Old School is the old one time cutting edge technology: a wobble pump and a variable pitch propeller that is not constant speed and piano switches on planes, air-driven 73-year old round instruments with VOR navigation and DME. I don’t have an ADF, but would like one, great for tuning into radio stations. The old plane itself is an amazing mix of aluminum, other metals, rubber, and fabric put together into an artistic whole that literally flies. Really think about that for a while. Isn’t that what flying is really about? A 530 is a great video game, but a dead reckoning decent into darkness or clouds takes skill and guts.

In spite of its age, the old Bonanza is fast (regularly 165 knots), has great ability to climb to 18,000 feet slowly or rapidly depending on my desire, and its very good 1947 creature comforts and long range make it a good traveling plane. A GREAT place to examine this big ball of earth that we live on. It probably won’t surprise you that I like the flying experience written in Saint-Exupery’s book Wind, Sand and Stars, written about early French world aviation: the essence of flying.

Talking to persons outside the aircraft interrupts the pleasure of flying over a great planet, so increasingly often I disconnect. On the recent Covid flight to Tucson, I preferred not to talk to anyone, except to the tower people and departure/approach when flying into Tucson. Tucson International has too many services and hangar space not to fly into it.

Bonanza
A 73-year old airplane is actually a perfect way to see the world.

On the second of our two recent summer round trips to Tucson, we left Tacoma Narrows Airport early on a severe clear day. We flew to one side of Mount Rainier—we kind of slid along its north side with a forest not far underneath our wings. I was using flight following and the controller asked me if I knew what I was doing—low over the magnificent forest, the huge glacier to our right. I canceled flight following. We were alone in the air, the planet seemingly ours (there were flew people flying with Covid ravaging the planet). Not far south of the Oregon border, we winged over sharp, jagged peaks of threatening stone which softened as we flew further south. The high land rolled and even the endless desert hills seemed safe for an emergency landing…

Our fuel stop at Battle Mountain, Nevada, came with a western feeling and long runways, friendly airport staff and miners. Covid masks were few. There were firefighting aircraft located at the airport. The FBO lent us an old purple-trimmed Ford pickup with compound low 4WD transmission. How cool is that? We drove around the small mining town. It was a friendly blue collar town; we were told that there was steady and well paid work at the various gold mines. The lady at the FBO said they were some of the largest in the world. Employment was secure.

On our way further south, we flew over the Grand Canyon. It is as advertised: very large, beautiful, and rugged. We also encountered a lot of turbulence, which ended when got to the desert near Phoenix. The air had joined the rippled surface of the planet in feel: they were both VERY rough.

With the jagged landscape and the jagged air, it gives occasion to really think about life on this planet. Much of the planet is rugged, unfriendly for human life. We were very much conscious that our survival was dependent on a 73-year old machine that was being tossed around like popcorn in a popcorn popping machine. Speed and altitude were dictated by the air itself; I rested and looked out the window and let Susane deal with the plane. Life can end very quickly. After the great pleasure of seeing and experiencing the planet, risk is the next (and only perverse) enjoyment of flying.

Old School will get you there safely, but I have bowed to technology and we also carried an iPad on board loaded with ForeFlight containing the world of VFR and IFR charts and plates and course and airport info. Coupled to Stratus 2 we had artificial vision… which I don’t like. Give me an old fashioned artificial horizon. I don’t need a magenta line as long as I have a compass and a landmark ahead (a distant peak)—just fly for it. The peaks will often even be sticking up through the clouds.

Terrain
Rough terrain and rough air—but worth it for the view.

Something NOT Old School is ADS-B Out. Big brother IS WATCHING. Just Google your tail number and you will see your departure time, route, speed, and arrival time… even if you do not file a flight plan or talk to ATC. In the New School you are tracked and anyone who knows your tail number can look at your trip in detail. If you want details of one of our trips, just Google N3255V and our course, altitude and speed is for all to see. The sharp edges of the speed graph are due to the turbulence. Old School was private. Listen carefully: you may need to know how to fly low and dead reckon some day. GPS satellites can be taken out. Also, in law school the Civil Procedure professor said, that “your biggest challenge will be to fight for the right of privacy.”

Forgetting that you are tracked everywhere and ignoring that Big Brother IS watching, Old School flying is still a great way to fly. I like the old plane, the old technology and feeling of being in the air in the short, light vee tailed Bonanza. I like hand flying the plane and I like to see what is below and around me. I get a great deal of pleasure in looking and examining this magnificent planet—true flightseeing. I am old enough (the plane IS older than I am), to not enjoy a lot of video games and the electronic life. That is not to say that out of necessity I don’t have computers and electronic stuff galore in my law practice. Much of my life has to interface with the electronic, but not in the plane unless I choose to do so.

I have done newer school in other aircraft (and very complex multiengine simulators) and it is very convenient, but putting $50K of electronics into a plane worth perhaps $30K makes no sense when Old School is already there… and fun.

In spite of Covid and threats that the world’s economy may fall apart, there is the joy of flying. And in your own plane you can decide when and where you want to go—it is like being 17 years old and climbing into your old Chevy or Ford or getting on your motorcycle (I have three of them), and going SOMEWHERE OR ANYWHERE on the road trip…

9 Comments

  • Many if not most ADS-B out systems allow you to be anonymous when VFR. If you are sqawking 1200, that is all of the identification that is available to others.

  • I completely agree. Though my aerial friend is a Wittman Tailwind W8 first flown in 2002, the design goes back to the mid fifties. The panel is old school. The 0-200 data plate say 1946. I am almost 60 and have been an aviator for 36 of those. Instrument rated..yep VOR’s, ADF, with paper charts etc. I do use a download on my phone for navigation but still keep paper charts handy.
    Aviating is my passion and escape. Keeping it simple keeps it that way. Hopefully for many years yet to come.

  • Timothy, you’re someone I’d like to be stuck with in an FBO for a couple hours of conversation. That’s possible in my line of work as a corporate pilot who goes to Tucson. I fly the boss’s jet into Marana though and love the old school Sky Rider Cafe there.
    I’m checking out your book.

  • Mr Acker, as an Air Carrier Captain and avid GA pilot (Debonair owner) I will tell you there’s a reason that Alaska crew took the delay. Flying Air Carrier is FAR different from GA flying. Yes, as GA pilots we could blast off, head 135 degrees and get there (or close) but with the airspace complexity that Air Carrier pilots have to deal with it’s not so simple.

    On the 73 MFD our airplane is depicted as a small triangle at the bottom of the screen. The base of the triangle represents your course line limits for RNAV departures or arrivals. If for some reason the course line falls outside those limits the crew stands an exceptionally high chance of being violated. We had several crews violated for this.

    The complexity of the airspace is such that there are specific procedures in place as to the loading of the flight plan into the FMS. One pilot loads the FMS and the the other pilot verifies the route and then each and every waypoint. Many waypoints have altitude and/or airspeed constraints and each of those constraints must be checked against the chart and verified in the FMS. If ATC changes the route prior to departure or at the end of the runway (which happens only all the time)(so much so that on every LOFT checkride we get this scenario while taxiing out from the gate) we have to repeat the process. Sounds like this is what happened to your Alaska crew.

    I am right there with you when it comes to flying my Deb. Unless there’s a specific need (filing IFR, dealing with complex airspace or MOAs, requesting a Class B penetration, etc) once clear the Class D – remember when we used to call those thingies Airport Traffic Areas? – I switch to 121.5 and just……fly. Now THAT’S flying.

  • I always thought it was ded (for deduced) reckoning not dead reckoning. I don’t want to get dead when I’m ded reckoning.

  • I’m with you, my old Cessna 210 is all old school, my GPS croaked the other day but I still went flying. I know guys who will cancel a VFR flight if they have no GPS.

  • If you have the iPad with the cellular capability (doesn’t need to be activated) it comes with a dandy GPS that will keep you out of trouble in complex airspace.

  • GPS is a great invention and very helpful with bad visibility but flying without, using paper charts with the route drawn on them, following landmarcks is extremely satisfying.

  • I also learned flying the old way. In 1980 I flew my Baron from Germany to Florida, on the leg from Nuuk, Greenland to Goosebay, Canada, I had to observe 70° compass variation with the need to correct every minute, since we were very close to magnetic North Pole. And of course at that time there was no GPS. I also had no LORAN, no VLF Omega but thanks God an auto pilot.
    In the plane succeeding the Baron, a King Air 200, I had installed a VLF Omega (Collins LRN – 85) and I loved it. Although this device was troublesome and not very precise, I was happy to “manage“ the plane by avionics. Of course it’s always an insurance to be able to fly old style, but I certainly prefer modern ways to fly, program flight paths, have frequencies readily available, have automatic pressurization, even autothrottle, etc.
    I agree, every pilot should be able to dead reckon – on the way from Nuuk to Goose Bay, I was two nautical miles off desired track, when I first received the Goose Bay VOR. And that’s a 1200 NM leg. I certainly was relieved, when I saw the VOR needle move, still more than 100 miles away from Goose Bay.
    It’s so nice nowadays to fly a GPS coupled autopilot and even have much more time to admire the beautiful landscape.

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