Flying From Here to There

One challenge I enjoyed most learning to fly was flying from one place to another. In the aviation business, they call this flying cross-country. It truly is a great challenge and immensely fun. It is also a fascinating science.

The ancient Polynesians are some of the most fascinating navigators to have lived on earth. More than a thousand years before the birth of Christ, they navigated from New Guinea and the Solomon islands far out into the Pacific Ocean. They sailed to and from the Hawaiian Islands weeks at a time, carrying all of their food and water and navigating without instruments, charts, or printed timetables.

They used the stars instead of navigational instruments. They were a very observant people and knew how the stars rotated around the world in the Pacific sky. Using their hands as rudimentary sextants, and songs passed down from one generation of navigators to next, they sailed across open oceans with uncanny precision.

To me, traveling from one point precisely to another is fascinating. Navigation is easy to understand when traveling on the surface of the earth. It was a simple matter of following directions. In other words, you can travel down Highway 92 for 3.8 miles, see the library on the right hand side of the road, turn left at that intersection, and find your way in this way anywhere on the ground.

Navigation at sea, however, was completely different. They are no checkpoints on the open ocean with which to check your course. A similar situation exists in the sky. At least in my mind it did, until I learned about the process of going from point A to point B.

In the beginning, learning how to navigate in the air seemed very confusing and difficult. I quickly found, however, that it was not. Like many things in life, you just have to be careful in your planning and then follow through with your plan.

I soon learned about the compass rose, how to determine direction, and how to measure distance. After drawing a line on the chart, it is no more complicated than putting the airplane on a heading and following that line along the ground.

Sure, it can be a little more complicated than that, but not too terribly so. These are the basics: to determine the course, estimate the airspeed and figure out the effect of the wind, measure the distance, and hold heading for the required time.

Today, many new student pilots are dependent on GPS and are unable to find their way around when the technology fails. Back in the early 1970s, GPS was not available and the airplanes I learned to fly in lacked electrical systems anyway. In other words, if you were unable to draw a line on a chart, set a heading, hold airspeed, and determine your checkpoints, more than likely you became lost.

The funny thing about student pilots is that they rarely become lost; pilots only get lost after becoming certified private pilots and grow a little too cocky.


©2011 J. Clark

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5 Responses to Flying From Here to There

  1. Harrison says:

    You don’t see many guys circling the watertank to find out what town they’re over anymore. Can you imagine a 747 losing its GPS and flying low over someone’s house to align with the direction of the TV antenna in order to find the next big city? Reminds me of the captain, who after almost a month, finally allowed the copilot to take the controls. After a few minutes, the copilot, in an attempt to be sociable, looked out the window and asked, “Wonder what little town that is?” The captain replied, “I’ve got it, I let you fly for two minutes and you’re already lost.”

    • Joe Clark says:

      Harrison! I have circled watertanks in the past and remember a time when my familiarity with the location of the watertank as it related to the airport really saved me once. Oh how I hate low ceilings and bad weather in a VFR-only airplane! Thanks for bringing back a memory from “the old days.”

  2. Jeanne says:

    I still remember flying my long cross-country. I feared I would get lost but I had plotted all of my checkpoints. I was worried about one of them because there wasn’t much else around to help identify my position. It was a lonely tower out in the middle of nowhere. When I found it I was so excited to see someone had painted it with red and white stripes as it reached for the sky. Much easier to find than I thought. Haven’t been lost yet and PLAN not to be. Have a great weekend Joe! Jeanne

    • Joe Clark says:

      Jeanne, I understand. I know you don’t plan to get lost, but you’re a pilot, right? And a licensed pilot at that! Ergo, at some time in the future, you will probably be lost. The trick to getting lost is always having enough fuel to find your way home. I want to buy a seaplane, land on a lake or river somewhere, and just for laughs and giggles, jump out and ask, “Where am I?” in a loud voice. Still working on that seaplane thing…

  3. Jeanne says:

    I’d love to be able to do the same except add speaking fluently in another language enough to make them really wonder.

    As far as getting lost, I’m sure I will be lost at some point in time with enough fuel to get home. I hope that I can do enough preparation before takeoff to decrease my chances of getting lost by knowing where I am going in the first place and knowing the weather I will be flying.

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