Trying not to be an “Old-Fogey”

I’m really not trying to be an old-fogey about this, but I guess I can’t help myself. My flight school has just purchased 25 brand new airplanes and each one has a fully IFR capable GPS moving map system. The systems are wonderful, and I should be happy that students will have a very hard time ever getting lost again. I should be happy that calculating an in-flight intercept angle on a vectored NDB approach is a thing of the past. I should be excited that holding patterns are now drawn out for us, but I still have to pause and reflect on what we’re giving up.

When we deliberated on which airplanes to buy and what equipment to have installed, I insisted that, despite all the computerized flight panel wonders available, I still wanted my trusty ADF included. I changed my mind when I learned that manufacturers wanted to install an antique ADF into a modern flight deck for $7,000 a pop! Twenty-five airplanes at $7,000 a piece was more money than my nostalgia could afford … or rationally argue. So I started asking myself — why did I want that old ADF, anyway? I have never been one to drag my feet with technology. What in this case was so different?

Eventually I arrived at an answer and I think many of you might agree with me. The old instruments with their round dials, left/right needles, and pointers gave the pilot only so much of the “big picture.” The pilot was then required to use their own ability to fill in the big picture where the instruments left off. I have always tried to fly with a mental image of what the radar screen would look like in the area I was flying. In my mind’s eye I can see my destination airport, my course, the approach I am getting ready to shoot… I can even see other traffic.

This mental picture helps me maintain situational awareness.

That old ADF was really just a tool to spark the imagination and force me to maintain awareness. The ADF is only a pointer. It does not depict the runway, or the approach course, or distance. It doesn’t depict much of anything, really. But I’ve shot hundreds of NDB approaches using just that pointer and my imagination’s mental picture of everything else.

Loosing the ADF means taking away a reason to think, plan, and imagine.

Thinking, planning, and imagining are all vital pilot skills. I think we loose a piece of these skills with the loss of the old instruments.

Ultimately, my little mental travels on this subject remind me of stories I have heard about the arrival of another new technology: when television first came out. When there was only radio, the voices of radio shows, like old navigation instruments, only took you part of the way. The rest of the trip was provided by your imagination. Your imagination let you see colors and breath in smells, and feel textures. Imagination helped you see the big picture. When television came out, the picture was provided for you. You did not need an imaginary picture because TV handed you a picture. Unfortunately however, the TV picture, created by scores of wardrobe, makeup, set design artists, and the like, was not often as rich or vivid as one person’s imagination would have been.

When TV appeared, the need for one form of imagination was reduced or eliminated. This was also a criticism of the Harry Potter movies. Reading the book forced kids to use their imagination so that they could “see” the Hogwarts School and Quidditch Stadium in their mind’s eye. But when the movie came out, many were disappointed because the movie could never measure up to the imagination. After the movie kids really would not have to use their imagination — they would just use the mental image provided by the movie instead of their own. Why are books better than movies? Because books call on us to use our imagination. The movie is just dumbing us down.

I think that when today’s pilots are simply presented with a picture on a moving screen, they will no longer be forced to develop their own mental picture. When this ability is lost, something special in the art and skill of piloting is lost, too.

Okay those are my thoughts on the passing away of the age in which I learned to fly. I’m sure the pilots before me thought I was soft because I didn’t have to ever fly an approach using the radio range equipment. After all, I learned on the new-fangled VORs, NDBs, and Localizers. I’m sure that in their minds, I was missing out on something special. Maybe they were right.

This fall I will be shooting GPS approaches and watching that moving map do all my mental work for me. Students beginning this fall may never learn to fly an NDB approach and therefore miss out on some skills that I believe are important. But I will not drag my feet into this new era. Having said my piece, I will join these new pilots and their flat screens, colorful pictures, and pop-up checklists. But I still believe in imagination. I still believe that in that imagination there are some things very real and very valuable. And that a mind is a terrible thing to waste.