My first experience with figuring out where you are when you're airborne. It didn't come easily!

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Judy & JJ
Peacebuilding Home

When I learned to fly, most of the navigation I was taught for the private pilot qualifications was with map and compass. The biggest differences between air navigation and road navigation is that:

you don't have road signs to explicitly tell you where you are - it's all open to interpretation. That is, you are still somewhere at all times, but you can be a lot less certain for a lot longer about just where that is if your map-reading isn't very good. (Years ago, they used to paint the airport names on the building roofs or runways. They don't do that very much anymore.

it's a lot harder to pull over and ask for directions

if you don't figure out where you are fast, then by the time you figure out where you were, you're somewhere else

I think this may be a major difference between Canadian and U.S. requirements. My American colleagues have said they do more "navigation" than "pilotage", and are amazed by the amount of map and compass that their Canadian colleagues do. While I did some work with radio navigation beacons (the VOR, mostly) during basic training and had to know about NAV aids, I did my dual and solo cross-country flights with map only. VOR was not an integral part of the exercise.

It was a frustrating exercise for a while, learning to read a map, and to get several cross-references before deciding I knew where I was.

All right, my idea was to look on the map and then find something on the ground that resembled where I thought I was. The right idea was to look at the ground, and find things on the map that can tell you where that is.Part of flight training involves a flight between cities with an instructor on board -- the "dual cross-country" flight. The required minimum for the cross-country solo was a triangular course of 120 nautical miles. To prepare, you draw the line on the map of where you want to fly, and you fly there, correcting your path if you drift off-course.

On my trip plan, I remember that the planned flight -- a big dark pencil line on the map -- took me right over Brantford airport, easy to identify by the triangular pattern of runways. Well, I looked out my window, and Brantford airport was way over to my left. The line on my map went right through the middle of Brantford airport. Somehow, I never added up this information to conclude that perhaps I was NOT in my planned location, over Brantford airport.

Like, if I could find anything on the map at all, this was pretty good; what more did somebody want? I was crossing the Grand River over one of the squiggles in the river (of which there was no shortage), just like I planned. Honest.

Fortunately, the weather was fine, and my instructor wisely let me drone for some time long over 90 degrees off-course for a good while. "Where are we?" he asked - something I later learn must be one of the questions instructors ask students the most. (Heck, there are times when my flying partner still asks me that. Fortunately, it's one I've learned is important to always be able to answer.) My course had taken me over a sharp and distinctive turn in the 401 that was a LOT further north than I could possibly have imagined being. "Find that on the map for me," he said. Finally, shocking and undeniable evidence that I couldn't possibly be where I thought I was. Worse, I couldn't believe that I had gone that far off course.

So, we had an impromptu exercise in plotting airborne "diversions".

The net effect was that I developed a growlingly triumphant sense of navigation: "...and THERE is the railway, and THERE is the water tower, and THERE is the high level bridge crossing the river on the RIGHT side of the city, so this MUST be Charlestown!"

And I can't say I always get it right on the first try. One of the hardest games to pay without using GPS or navigation radio, particularly when flying below about 3000 feet, or in haze, or into the sun, or at night in an urban area, is "find the airport."

Finally, I admit that one of the appeals of an instrument rating was to avoid visual pilotage, and to have air traffic control to talk to most of the time, and be on someone else's radar.

What I ended up learning was that the responsibility for knowing where you are when you're in the clouds is even greater: you need to know where you are in order to avoid hitting things you can't see.