Standing in front of the class, I talked of the rudiments of navigation. I still marvel at the miracle of leaving somewhere on the earth in a vehicle, vessel, or airship and navigating precisely to another location. Then after visiting a while, we climb back into the magical carriage to find our way home. In the past, I have written about what I consider is the most remarkable navigational accomplishment to date (see Mankind’s Greatest Navigational Achievement).
One day when discussing navigation with a group of students, one pilot referred to some of his peers as “magenta babies.” I had never heard the term before, but as soon as he started to explain, I knew what he meant.
As he explained, a magenta baby is a pilot who enters the destination data into the navigation unit, looks at the electronic chart on the GPS or iPad, and then blindly follows the magenta line. Checkpoints? Fuel flow? Fuel remaining? Airport information? For the magenta baby, none of these is important.
When I was a student pilot, there were no equivalents to GPS or other electronic navigation tools. I learned how to fly in a J-3 Cub completing all of my cross-country training at 75 mph at the nosebleed altitude of 1200 AGL.
The skills Charlie imparted on all of his student pilots included the abilities to draw a straight line, measure the distance, calculate the wind correction angle, determine the estimated ground speed, pick good checkpoints, estimate the time between those checkpoints, and keep track of the gas. We had skills with a circular whiz wheel, plotter, and a number 2.
According to many students today, the magenta babies are incapable of using those tools. And because they don’t, some never developed the skills and expertise required to fly without electronics. Technology is a wonderful thing and it has made our lives so much easier. However, we still have to be capable of the basics.
Have you ever visited Williamsburg, VA? You instantly find yourself transported back in time to the late 1700s while walking around the old buildings. You can see how Americans lived back in 1776 when the country was forming. There were no typewriters to write legislation; cooks mixed cake batter by hand; there was no way to keep food refrigerated; farming was a tedious and laborious necessity. During those times, the early Americans probably spent about 70 or 80 hours a week just trying to survive.
Technology eliminated much of the time we spent in those activities.
The same holds true of technology in the cockpit. Planning a complex cross-country flight once required a lot of effort and time. Now with ForeFlight and other GPS units, flight planning has never been easier or quicker. Additionally, technology in the cockpit has gone a long way to alleviating pilot workloads.
Or has it?
If you study some of the recent mishaps the NTSB and FAA have investigated, you may see how a pilot’s understanding, or misunderstanding of technology, played a role in the accidents. If a pilot does not understand technology or uses it incorrectly, it might cause an accident. Colgan 3407 is a case in point. Technology led the flight crew down a path from which there was no return. After misinterpreting the ques from the technology, they lost the airplane. It is very easy to do if you have forgotten or disregarded the fundamentals.
Another case focusing on the relationship between pilot and technology was the Airbus 320 crash at the Habsheim, France airshow on June 26, 1988. This crash, riddled with unusual circumstances and events, came to an inglorious end in the woods off the end of the runway. Everyone associated with the airplane and the event blamed others for the crash that claimed three lives and injured 50 of the 136 onboard at the time. The pilot blamed the aircraft systems and Airbus blamed the pilot.
Because of the flawed investigation, French authorities charged the pilot with involuntary manslaughter and sentenced him to a six-month jail sentence, followed by 12 months of probation. The first officer, two Air France company executives, and the president of the flying club responsible for organizing the event were also accused and sentenced to probation only. For a video of the event, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KEH7OpnA-I4 or click on the image below.
Today, we have great technology in the kitchen, which is very helpful for measuring, mixing, preserving, baking and cooking our food. Mixing bowls, ladles, mixers, computerized ovens, dishwashers, and more are wonderful tools to make cooking and baking easier. We can apply the same concept to the technology we now have available to flying airplanes.
Here’s the rub, however. Just as with creating a delicious cake, you have to know the fundamentals of baking. Flying from point A to point B without, or without technology, also requires knowing the fundamentals of how to fly.
©2017 J. Clark
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