No Margin For Error

Faulty or imprecise navigation could put you in prohibited airspace, or controlled airspace without proper clearance; these days, that could lead to loss of your flying privileges — or it could get you killed. Even if the ending is happier, the aftermath of poor navigation may create even more layers of regulation and limitations on everybody’s flying. AOPA Monday reported that there were three more airspace incursions at restricted area P-40 over the weekend. Both EAA and AOPA are strongly warning all pilots that such incursions may ultimately cost us all dearly in freedom and privileges formerly taken for granted. Consider these fresh examples before your next flight.

This is my best recollection of an exchange I recently overhead…

Aircraft: Approach, Cessna 12345 is a Cessna 150, slash “G,” at 3000 feet, request flight following to Lexington.

Controller: Cessna 12345, squawk 1234.

[A pause while the Cessna pilot tunes his transponder, and Air Traffic Control (ATC) identifies him on radar.]

Controller: Cessna 12345, do you realize you’re inside the Class B airspace?

Aircraft: Ah, negative, Cincinnati.

Controller: Well, 345, you’re inside the Class B. Can you see that big jetport at your 12 o’clock and eight miles? Well, that’s Cincinnati airport, and you’re inside the Class B without a clearance. I need you to make an immediate left turn to 120 degrees to get out of my airspace, and descend to below 2400 feet. You’ve got Delta airliners all around you. Do you have a chart on board?


Aircraft: Ah… yes.


Controller: I need you to turn southeast NOW and descend below 2400 feet NOW.

[Apparently the Cessna pilot complied, because the frequency was quiet for a while, but after some time there was one last call.]

Controller: Cessna 12345, next time you will look at your area chart, and get a clearance before entering the Class B airspace.

[The Cessna pilot did not respond.]

Labor Day weekend, 1986… A Mexican DC-9 and a Piper Archer met in the airspace above Cerritos, California. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the Archer “had inadvertently entered the Los Angeles Terminal Control Area (TCA, predecessor of today’s Class B airspace) and wasn’t in radio contact…” The public furor following the tragic collision and its 82 deaths led to the biggest “airspace grab” in American history, as the FAA created mandatory-participation controlled airspace around almost all airports served by the airlines — what we now call Class C.

June, 2002… Two days before the Cessna incident I overhead on Cincinnati Approach, I heard another controller trying to reach the pilot of a light airplane that had “busted” the no-longer “Temporary” Flight Restriction (TFR) area over Fort Knox, Kentucky. The night before that, the pilot of a Cessna 182 flew over the White House while deviating around adverse weather — F-16s scrambled and the Executive Mansion was partially evacuated.


Aerial navigation has changed phenomenally in the last 10 to 15 years. The introduction first of Loran-C and then Global Positioning System (GPS) systems into light airplanes has made accurate positional awareness far easier than ever before. You don’t have to have been in this game all that long to remember when pilots’ position reports changed from “about 10 miles from the airport” to “seven point two miles, bearing 320.” Precise navigation entered the lightplane market in the late 1980s and really blossomed when handheld GPS units hit the rental fleet full-force in the ’90s.

With this dramatic increase in navigation ability, though, perhaps we pilots are losing some of our more basic map skills. The Cessna pilot made a point of being “slash ‘G,’” the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) code for an airplane equipped with an IFR-certified GPS. Yet even with this unprecedented level of navigational capability, he had stumbled into one of the busiest blocks of airspace in the United States. Only by luck — and likely the hard work of controllers — he had not yet flown into the path of a passenger-laden airliner.

I heard another exchange between two pilots at a busy Fixed Base Operator (FBO) just a few days before. One asked the other if he still carried sectional charts on board his airplane. The other replied, “No, not since I have my moving map GPS.” And ever more common is for instrument pilots to carry approach plates just for those airports of intended destination — not for emergency diversions or any other contingencies, or for alternate airports.

In today’s (U.S.) security-conscious world, we have to avoid Temporary Flight Restriction areas that don’t yet appear on any GPS moving-map database or sectional chart. For that matter, in most lightplanes (like the Beech Sierra I commonly fly) the panel-mounted GPS in the airplane has no map function. Mine does display warnings like “inside Cincinnati Class B,” but it does not indicate the altitude ranges of the controlled airspace where I’m currently flying. It’s still up to me to determine if I’m inside the lateral limits but safely below the base of the airspace… as apparently the Cessna pilot had planned to be and was not.

GPS, and GPS-driven moving maps, are great tools. I certainly like the GPS in the airplanes I fly, and will get myself a moving map system one of these days. But as good as they are, they’re no replacement for responsible pilots, using the GPS along with more traditional navigation techniques (like good, old-fashioned finger-on-the-map methods) to get where they’re going, be ready for changes in plan, and keep out of harm’s way.

BOTTOM LINE: Don’t delegate your navigational responsibility completely to a small, metal (or plastic) box. Remember the basics to keep yourself safe… and out of trouble. In our community, playing by the rules means being a good pilot — but it’s also one of the only ways the F-16s will know what side your on.