D is for Dead Reckoning

Where are we? What does the GPS say?

“DEAD RECKONING – In pioneer flight before radio, beacons, and accurate maps, flying distances much by instinct and guesswork, and referring to whatever landmarks were below, was quite routine. The “dead” part simply meant “straight,” as in the nautical “dead ahead,” and pilots often relied heavily on the IRON COMPASS for cross-country flights over unfamiliar territory.”http://www.aerofiles.com/glossary.html

In my opinion, dead reckoning is a lost art. Pilots have become so dependent on technology, that even when their destination is in sight, they still obsessively consult the aircraft’s GPS to verify their position. Some don’t even glance outside the cockpit anymore, except when forced to for takeoff and landing, content to monitor the flight systems as autopilot does all the work. I honestly believe that this behavior is nothing short of laziness, and that the pilot is voluntarily rejecting of the joy of flight.

As a freight pilot, I was encouraged to fly the aircraft manually. As a charter pilot, I was forbidden to hand fly the aircraft above 10,000 feet. The difference in skill level between my freight colleagues and my charter coworkers was remarkable, and I place the blame firmly on the glittery allure of technology.

One of the most interesting examples of this assertion comes from my days as a flight instructor. Prior to signing off a student to complete their required solo cross-country flights, I would do my best to get them lost and force them to use dead reckoning to make their way home.

My normal tactic involved practicing unusual attitude recovery. The student would close their eyes while I placed the aircraft in either a steeply climbing or rapidly descending turn. They must then safely return the aircraft to straight and level flight after I instruct them to open their eyes. At some point during these maneuvers, I would reset the gyroscopic heading indicator 90 degrees so that when it showed we were going east to return to the field, we were actually southbound. We would fly south until the student figured out that something was wrong, and then I would let them use whatever would be available to them when they were alone to find their way home. We did not have GPS in those old trainers, so they were forced to use dead reckoning.

Only one of my students was not fooled. He was my oldest student – in his 70s, I think – and dead reckoning was nothing new to him. When I tried my little trick on him and asked him to go ahead and take us home, he pointed the aircraft in the right direction without hesitation.

I was astonished.

When I asked him how he knew he was going the right direction, he pointed out the window and said, “That’s Morris to the south of us along the river. The airport is east.”

“But the heading indicator says that we’re going south,” I said, still confused.

“Does it? I never look at that thing. The magnetic compass will never steer you wrong if you give it a chance,” he responded.

That day, I was the one who got schooled, and I have no doubt that I am a better pilot for it.

    – This post is dedicated to Joe Witkowski. Thank you for sharing your love of flying with me. Rest in peace, my friend.

10 thoughts on “D is for Dead Reckoning

  1. Marvellous, reminds me of Algeria when I once lost my compass, and started using a small astrolabe… Must have been very young then! A pleasure to follow your posts 🙂

    1. An astrolabe?! Now, that’s old school! Surely, it was an artifact that you picked up in a museum and learned how to use as a school research project. 🙂

    1. “Trust your instruments” is something that is drummed into pilots once they start learning to fly in the clouds. But we all seem to forget that we have no choice but to trust our instruments, because there are no other reliable points of reference. I think that happens to us a lot in life, too, in that we don’t cross-check our beliefs against other points of view.

    1. I have “Bridge of Deaths” at the tippy-top of my reading list – there never seems to be enough time in the day to relax, curl up on my favorite chair and enjoy it with a cup of tea. 😦

      Now, I’m even more intrigued (if that’s possible). I wonder if I can get away with not cleaning the house in favor of reading…

  2. Wonderful post, Tawn. I love the idea of going with your human instincts. So many other skills are being lost because of technology.

    1. Thanks, SDS. And you’re absolutely right – I sometimes think our dependence on technology is downright scary. The last time we had a power outage in my neighborhood, some people lost the ability to do anything but fret about when the power would come back on. I can’t imagine what they would do if something catastrophic were to ever happen to the power grid. Or if they misplaced their iPhone. They would probably just curl up and starve to death.

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