GPS: A VFR Requirement?

Garmin G1000 instrument panel

(Note: this is, to an extent, a continuation of my previous post on GPS dependency)

Recently, a fellow pilot opined that all aviators should have a GPS receiver in the cockpit. He related the story of a low visibility day where several pilots had a hard time spotting the airport, even when they were nearly on top of it, and concluded that if we all carried a GPS, this would not happen.

The responses were not surprising. By a ratio of about six to one, pilots were in agreement. I, of course, took the road less traveled. And that has made all the difference. Well, not really, but it did provide a great idea for an article.

One pilot even went so far as to state the following:

This holds true for VFR as well. There is absolutely no excuse for any person, monkey, orangutan, or baboon to fly in unfamiliar territory without at least a handheld aviation GPS to keep reference. Some folks don’t feel that they need one, and the rest of us will suffer dearly for it the next time they screw up.

Interesting.

So I’m an aerobatic pilot on my way to a competition. I’m flying an S-1S, a common single seat aircraft that doesn’t even have enough space to store a chart (I fold it up and sit on it), let alone a GPS. The airplane has an airspeed indicator, altimeter, and magnetic compass. No gyros, no electronics save a lightweight Becker com radio.

If there’s absolutely no excuse to fly without a handheld GPS, should I retire from flying, or simply have the aircraft shipped from airport to airport via truck?

As far as getting lost is concerned, part of my job is training people to fly the G1000 equipped DA40 DiamondStar and FlightMax Entegra equipped SR20 and SR22. I cannot tell you how many pilots have literally not known where they were going, despite the electronics. The list of sins is long and varied:

  • allowing the autopilot to fly without regard to whether it is following heading, nav source, or simply functioning as a wing leveler
  • accepting what the glass panel tells them, not even bothering to check it against the mag compass to ensure it’s reporting common-sense ground track and/or headings
  • programing the GPS with erroneous waypoints, not even noticing that the distance between two waypoints is over a thousand miles (for example, the Seal Beach VOR shares an identifier with a navaid in South America).
  • busting airspace, as hard as that is to believe
  • dialing in wrong frequencies, failing to ident
  • failure to crosscheck
  • leaving charts in the flight bag, on the back seat, or on the ground

Not to mention having their head inside the cockpit way too much, relying on Skywatch or Mode S downlink for traffic avoidance, and flying the pattern without dedicating appropriate attention to what’s happening outside. If anything makes busting a TFR seem like a picnic, it’s the thought of a mid-air collision.

These electronic instruments can create extremely high workload, or like television, tempt us to zone out while flying. The instances of pilots getting lost may have gone down with the advent of GPS, but make no mistake about it, if the day ever comes when GPS signals are degraded, turned off, jammed, or the constellation somehow fails, you will see chaos unlike anything since 9/11.

I fly the most advanced GA aircraft in existance, as well as planes equipped with nothing but a magnetic compass. So I see both sides of the coin, and I will tell you I feel far safer with the guy in the Extra 300 or Super Decathlon who’s got a chart, compass, watch, and knows how to use them.

This is not about whether GPS is more accurate than pilotage (it is). This is about whether the guy in the front seat is going to be a pilot or a passenger. GPS creates definite risks, it leads to loss of skill, and dependencies can form. People stop doing things like checking for TFRs at all! GPS makes flying seem so simple, but it’s not, and what you don’t know can kill you.

Even leaving all that aside, there are issues of cost (purchase, installation, database updates, training), weight (see my aforementioned aerobatic aircraft as an example), and so on. Requiring GPS makes as much sense as requiring two engines. Sure it’s safer, but when safety becomes that important, we should all stay on the ground and cut our pilot certificates into little pieces.

Finally, there’s the issue of enjoyment. I think it’s a lot more enjoyable to simply look out the window. Why is it that pilots spend all this money to get a birdseye view of the world and then proceed to ignore that view in favor of a computer screen? I got into aviation to get away from staring at a computer screen all day. Not everyone with a GPS stares at it all the time, but the cockpits are becoming more and more electronic. And the more electrons you add, the more this seems to happen.

I have owned GPS recievers, use them daily, and think they’re great. But suggesting that anyone who flies must have a GPS is, in my opinion, totally crazy. If you can’t safely and confidently plan and fly a cross country flight using nothing but the minimum instruments required under 14 CFR 91.205, you lack the skill every ~50 hour student pilot posseses when I send them for a checkride.

Perhaps some aviators think that’s okay. I would urge them to reconsider.

  3 comments for “GPS: A VFR Requirement?

  1. Mike Hougan
    October 9, 2005 at 8:23 pm

    I’m on that less traveled road with you. May the deity of your choice save us all if GPS is mandated. I can’t fathom the thought that 6 to 1 pilots think this is a good idea. It’s like mandating the use of an autopilot. Geez, if DR and pilotage are viewed as so difficult and risky that “the rest of us will suffer dearly for it the next time they screw up,” I shudder to think what happens when “any person, monkey, orangutan, or baboon” starts punching buttons on that GPS without some common sense idea of where he is!

  2. Graham Bentley
    November 15, 2005 at 3:11 am

    A GPS is an excellent SUPPLEMENT to normal visual navigation, in the same way that VOR’s and NDB’s are. Primary visual navigation remains as clock, map and compass. I think GPS’s are a good idea, but they should not be relied upon or used as the sole means of navigation by VFR pilots.

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