Dude, Where’s My GPS?

I’m not one of those ‘all technology sucks’ guys who look down my nose at a well equipped instrument panel. I fly the Cirrus SR20/22 and G1000-equipped DiamondStars all the time and really enjoy teaching glass panel stuff. Indeed, I’ll be the first to admit that GPS is the best thing to come along since sliced bread.

But when I started instructing, I realized that my own basic navigation skills had deteriorated. I knew this not because I ever got lost, but because I was vaguely uncomfortable without a GPS, as though I couldn’t reliably remain clear of airspace in the Los Angeles basin without it. That was embarassing, because any student pilot is required to demonstrate that skill on solo flights before they can even think about obtaining a private pilot certificate. And here I was, an instructor, feeling less than totally comfortable with it.

Since then I’ve flown minimally equipped aerobatic airplanes on long cross countries with nothing but a map and compass and have come to enjoy the challenge. When flying in actual IMC, I’ll take every tool available to me. But when traveling in VMC, I almost prefer to use a compass and a chart because it builds and preserves a lot more skill than using GPS. It also literally forces me to keep my head outside the cockpit, which is good for all sorts of reasons.

Despite the fact that I enjoy using GPS in the clouds, I don’t let my instrument students do it unless they’re flying a glass panel airplane. This may interpreted as an old codger cooing about how much better things were in the ‘good old days’, but at Sunrise we work the instrument students pretty hard. Not for it’s own sake, but to turn out decent instrument pilots who can handle anything that comes along.

I’m teaching one guy now who’s only done a half dozen approaches in the airplane so far (though he’s done a dozen or more in the sim), and I’ve already got him going partial panel in a very busy environment. We’ll launch out of SNA with a clearance to Long Beach (maybe 10 miles away) and request the NDB approach, which he’ll do partial panel. It’s not easy. You takeoff, and less than 2 minutes later you get cleared for the approach. And before that the student has to get the ATIS, set the altimeter and DG, review altitudes, setup and ident the radios, review the missed, set the markers, verify minimums, and so on.

Before I’m done with him, he’ll be able to do a partial panel, single radio non-precision approach. The crowning feat is doing the no-gyro NDB 19R at SNA. It’s on a southerly course, so the compass errors are maximized. And there are a lot of closely spaces step-down fixes. It’s not because I think anyone will ever do that approach in real life — and certainly they’ll never do it partial panel. I teach them to do that because it’s extremely demanding, and I want to push them to their limit (and beyond) on every flight. Like a muscle that’s been exercised, it breaks down and then rebuilds itself even stronger.

I’ve no illusions about what these guys will do after getting their instrument rating. They’ll start flying with GPS. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. There’s no debating that it’s more accurate and capable than any other form of electronic naviation. But they’ll have the knowledge and skill to handle high-workload approaches with instrument failures in busy airspace.

Instrument flying is almost purely a mental exercise and here in Socal you’re always getting vectored around, so I demand that students always know exactly where they are and never rely on a controller for situational awareness. On an ILS, they have to track the cross radials, use the DME, and time the approach. If there’s a navaid they can use, they’d better be using it. If they get vectored, they better know where they’re being vectored to. And if they’re sent across the final approach course, they must know it’s happening and query ATC accordingly.

I recently flew with a guy who trained at Sunrise about 10 years ago. He hadn’t flown instruments for nearly that long, but his training came back and he was flying to high standards almost immediately. He accurately self-diagnosed his errors, weak points, and knew how to fix them.

On the other hand, I’ve flown with guys who had instrument ratings but were terrible pilots. One — get this! — held an instrument rating but had never done a circling approach before. That should not be possible; you have to demonstrate a circle-to-land on the checkride.

We were doing the ILS 29R at Torrance and were told to circle north for runway 11L, and he turned to me and said “what is that?”. I replied, “It’s a circling approach” and he came back with “I don’t know what that is.” I had to ask several times to reaffirm what he’d told me. It didn’t seem within realm of possibility. The negligence of his instrument instructor — and the examiner — was almost beyond comprehension.

He also accepted clearances he didn’t understand, couldn’t hold headings or altitudes to anywhere near PTS standards, and was so far behind the airplane that I terminated the checkout and told him he was not going to be able to get IFR privileges without major remedial training on the basics. Truth be told, he’d probably have to start over from square one. I wish I could say that this guy is a fluke, but it seems to be a common occurance. I’m not talking about rust here. The average pilot flies something like 60 hours per year, and a bit of rust is expected. But this is downright poor training.

In the final analysis, the problem isn’t the GPS, it’s the laziness of students and instructors who don’t see a problem with relinquishing major pilot-in-command responsibilities to ATC, GPS, or just good old fashioned fate.

  2 comments for “Dude, Where’s My GPS?

  1. August 26, 2005 at 12:52 pm

    Couldn’t agree with you more, but don’t blame the students. I doubt that its laziness on their part, as they tend to put trust in their instructors to train them to the right standards. If they have the willingness to learn and train to correct their deficencies, then they have the right attitude.

  2. Ron
    August 26, 2005 at 10:08 pm

    You’re right, it’s primarily a failure on the part of the instructor. And sadly, the checks and balances failed this particular guy since he passed his instrument airplane checkride.

    On the other hand, it behooves students to realize that comprehensive, quality instruction is a critical part of flight safety and beware the selection of the fastest, cheapest traiing program. Unfortunately, when starting from scratch, people don’t typically know what they don’t know. It’s only in later years that they realize how good their training was. Or wasn’t.

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