I was giving a flight review the other day and in the words of Claude Rains (Casablanca), I was shocked, positively shocked that the pilot I was flying with had virtually no knowledge of basic navigation. With the technology available today, I probably should not have been that surprised, but after working in aviation safety for many years, I have a concern.
The pilot in command is the entity on the flight deck for properly positioning the aircraft, not a GPS coupled to an autopilot. If you happen to be flying with a certified navigator, then I am going let you off the hook, but the chances of that in today’s world would be slim to none. If you are a “GPS or FMS slave” and your pre-flight navigation planning consists only of programming a GPS, you may want to give your flight planning techniques a second thought.
Every day, advanced navigation equipped aircraft are wandering off course, pilots are getting lost, and engines are suddenly stopping due to fuel exhaustion because of inaccurate, or a lack of, preflight planning and in-flight position awareness. Of course, the pundits will ask: what does knowing how to navigate have to do with running out of gas? Actually plenty, because proper planning and accurately navigating the aircraft in flight includes accurate fuel planning for the flight track to be flown.
Okay, so let us forget the fuel issue for the moment. How many pilots are checking the GPS outage NOTAMs that may exist for their route of flight? I talk to a lot of pilots and the answer is, not many. Just like VORs and radar, GPS is just another tool to be used to maintain the proper flight profile. However, the primary method to determine where your trusty steed is taking you should be a good flight plan and dead reckoning. I can hear the laughter through the page that you are reading from here. That is fine, I have been heckled before (right before the crash, I might add).
Personally, in keeping with full disclosure, I did run out of fuel once, in April 1970. Luckily, I did not join the accident database. I knew exactly where I was: right over the Mexico, Missouri, airport when the engine coughed, thus telling me to switch the fuel tanks in the Beechcraft T-34. I switched tanks and the engine stopped along with my heart. I was at 8500 feet, VFR, so I used the checklist and tried for a restart. With no fuel, I was now a glider. I circled over the airport and landed ok, now stranded on the runway. A great guy came out driving a tractor and asked me if I needed fuel. I told him I still had plenty, but it appeared to be in the wrong tank. He burst out laughing and towed me to the pump. I filled the left tank (the one that worked) and continued to my destination. I later learned from maintenance that the right fuel line was clogged (how, I do not know), thus the tank would not feed.
Examining safety statistics is always an interesting exercise, as is reading accident reports. I know, I know, the accident or close call will never happen to you… this is being written for all the other guys out there, not you. In the United States an aircraft crashes every day (maybe not every day, but there are at least 365 crashes per year; in 2019 there were 1220 general aviation accidents) so the “other guys” are keeping the statistics intact. Continued flight into IMC accounts for a bunch of the smoking holes, but fuel exhaustion (it is back) and a complete lack of situational awareness (read: I have no idea where I am) also have some heavy input to the bar graph.
They say that navigation can be considered an art and I am rapidly finding out it could be a lost art. Are the “other guys” bad people? No, they are not. Are they bad pilots? Yes, they are. I always read the reports of accidents in the public media (I do not enjoy reading this stuff). Inevitably, the accounts of friends and family include the fact that they were a good, safe pilot. I can never recall reading an account that included the fact that the pilot was inept and an accident waiting to happen. As a pilot, where are you in this scenario? This is a thought worth pondering before your next flight.
Proper navigational flight planning and execution in flight is important no matter how many sophisticated navigation devices are mounted on your aircraft dashboard. Do not ignore your compass and timepiece and always be aware of your position and you will avoid becoming one of the “other guys.” Be the best that you can be and remember that a safe flight begins when you are wandering around on the ground, not at rotation.
By the way, if you rarely look at your compass and if you use your fuel gauges for anything other than an option installed to make you feel good, you are rapidly on your way to becoming one of the “other guys.”
Glenn Michael flew in the United States Air Force for six years active duty and 22 years in the reserves. His civilian career was with the Federal Aviation Administration for 40 years. He served in Air Traffic Control, Air Traffic Evaluations, Flight Test, and International Aviation Safety. A pilot since 1969, he holds ATP single and multiengine, CFI, CFII, CFIME and ground instructor ratings. He is still active as a flight instructor in aircraft and in simulators.