GPS Direct?

Drew Steketee was president of BE A PILOT, senior vp-communications for AOPA and executive director of the Partnership for Improved Air Travel. He also headed PR and media relations for Beech, GAMA and the Airport Operators Council International.

Again, consumer electronics will be king this holiday shopping season, driven by vast leaps in features and capabilities at ever-decreasing cost. Priced flat-screen TVs lately? No wonder the most widespread progress in General Aviation after 1980 was in avionics.

Despite some wonderful new designs recently, aircraft “mass” production ended after the market share battle of the 1970s. The January 1981 GAMA annual report tallied 142 aircraft models from U.S. manufacturers alone. Thereafter, factory lights dimmed until the mid-1990s. In the interim, the action shifted to avionics. Innovators adapted the computer revolution to GA, creating an attractively priced retrofit market that refreshed a now-aging aircraft fleet.

Concepts and capabilities came fast and furious. Early on, I winced at the endless button pushing to operate the old Argus 5000. Newer devices offered rotary switches and bigger screens — although memorization and practice were still required to master them. The Air Safety Foundation soon became concerned. Pilots weren’t “reading the book” and got precious little avionics training from their CFIs.

Almost overnight, undreamed-of capabilities were available for a couple hundred bucks. Handhelds were soon down to the size of a cigarette pack. Low-level navigation was revolutionized, especially for flight below/beyond VOR reception and for weight-limited old or LSA aircraft with no or limited electrical system. After Sept. 11, GPS enabled the precision required to negotiate complicated and penalty-rich restricted airspace.

Wonderful as it all was, I began to notice pilots relying on GPS at the expense of basic airmanship. Human interface with new technology is often short-changed in product design and introduction. Easy and affordable GPS was now the latest temptation for lax flight planning and “jump-in-and-go” flying.

“The box will get me there.” It’s as tempting as over-reliance on ATC controllers who, after all, can’t fly the plane for you. There is no magic hand. It’s all in your own skills, capabilities, judgment and preparation regardless of your equipment budget.

This came back to me after enjoying GPS’ cheap and capable low-level nav in the old L-16B. Cross-country at 70 knots with limited fuel, it’s important to conserve your options. Bad navigation or surprise headwinds exact BIG penalties on the low-and-slow. You can be out of options before you know you’re in trouble.

My moment of truth: Watching a well-equipped spam can pilot throw away his options following the almighty GPS course line. He was flying me home over mountainous terrain where altitude and landing spots should have meant safety. Instead, we were tracking direct along the absolute shortest route after the shortest possible climb. Fuel economy and efficiency were the goal now that we had GPS.

Good old-fashioned airmanship was out the window – literally — as I stared wistfully at the nearby valley parallel to our course, just a ridge over. Yet we plowed ahead over miles of rough terrain where an emergency landing was impossible. Sometimes “ya gotta,” but not when safer ground is in sight or just a slight detour away.

In the draggy and slow Aeronca, terrain flying was my insurance against its old engine and limited gliding range. My friend, the gadget-driven Cessna driver, had forgotten such lessons to chase GPS efficiency and simplicity. Sometimes, it’s just not that simple. (A 60-year-old taildragger re-teaches humility and caution, even when armed with GPS.)

Whatever you get for Christmas, I hope you’ll remember that new panel toys don’t cancel flying basics. The physics, limitations and challenges are constants. The tools may change, but the consequences do not.

Story © 2010 Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved

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