Tips for Instructors - Teaching Navigation in the Computer Age
        a new world for old instructors

Printed in National Association of Flight Instructors - Mentor - May-June 2015

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TeachingNavigation01

I don't say this lightly. I taught in the days of ADF and VOR-only navigation. I thought that DME was the system that would spoil all "real" instrument pilots and make life way too easy. And then RNAV started to find its way into GA aircraft. I knew that that system would never find its way into aircraft that I could afford to fly, but of course it did. As did LORAN and GPS. But the introduction of the iPad and its variations, both in-panel and in-lap, have changed the way we look at flying, and it has been a challenge helping older pilots make the transition. But it is also a challenge helping new pilots understand which of the "old stuff" still applies.

I have always told my students that I intend to fill them with two large bodies of information I will teach them everything that they need to know to pass their written and practical exams, and I will teach them what they need to know to survive. And I tell them that these two buckets of knowledge overlap, but they definitely do not match exactly.  And right now, the largest area of divergence be­ tween the two seems to be in flight planning and enroute navigation.

The traditional method of VFR flight planning consisted of two major tasks.
First, laying out the sectional charts on the floor or kitchen table and, taking a yardstick, drawing a straight line from departure point to destination. But not too dark, because after plotting the straight line, you commonly noted all of the areas that you did not want to over­ fly. And so, the next step was to make the line "less straight."
After drawing the line, it was time to locate good checkpoints. Turning points had to be included, of course, but also several easily discerned points roughly 10 or 15 flying minutes apart. Then, time to get out the plotter and measure distances and determine course lines. And then, after learning the strength of the winds aloft, it was time to compute groundspeeds, drift corrections, times between checkpoints and fuel bums.
Before takeoff you would spread out all of this information in the cramped space allowed on your lap, and after takeoff (time noted) you would set your heading for the first checkpoint. Checkpoint found? Note the time and compute the time to the next point. Continually look outside and match features on the ground with marks on the chart. And, in no time at all, the next checkpoint comes into view, right at the computed time.
I took a certain amount of satisfaction in neatly making all of the computations and markings, and then finding the points and checking to see how close my computed times came to my actual times. But times change, and many of us no longer pull out paper and pencil.

According to the current Private Pilot Airman Certification Standards (ACS), these planning tasks are still required. Regarding pre-flight planning and cross-country planning the applicant is still required to understand:
Route planning
Use appropriate and current charts.
Compute headings. flight times and fuel requirements.

But of course, the means we compute all of this information is different. And the appropriate charts might be electronic, not paper. Now, we establish an aircraft
identity in our flight-planning app, together with true airspeed and fuel burns. Then select that airplane, type in the identifiers for the departure, destination and enroute airports, and click "Enter."

I-Pad pic

Take a look at the course line the flight­ planning app is showing. Does this course take you through airspace you should avoid? Does it take you across terrain you want to skirt? No problem. Put your finger on the line and "pull" the course around a bit. An hour or more of flight planning reduced to about three minutes.
Good idea? I guess so. I admit that this is my own current technique for flight planning. And other than a weather and NOTAM check on the day of the flight, the planning goes pretty quickly. But to an old guy like me, it seems so easy that there must be some­ thing wrong with this system.
Now, let's get into the airplane. If you are VFR, and using the same iPad app in flight that you used to plan, nothing could be easier. Your course line is drawn, and as you head away from the airport you can see your miniature plane moving its way down the blue (or magenta) line.
One of the dilemmas for any teacher in any field is to know what to keep and what to throw away as technologies change. I can still pull out my E-6B and calculate my drift angle, as well as true airspeeds, fuel burns, density altitudes and a host of other calculations. But is it worthwhile to teach that skill? Probably not. There are so many other, much easier ways to calculate that information that the E-6B is pretty archaic.
So, when laying out the cross-country on the sectional, and calculating ground­ speeds, drift angles and fuel consumption, is it necessary to use paper, pencil, straight edge and small calculator? Or is a DUATS or ForeFlight or similar flight-planning system acceptable? My feeling, and it seems the feeling of most of the designated pilot examiners (DPEs) in my area, it does not matter how the data is derived and presented as long as the student can explain how he (or the computer) actually calculated the info.
I draw the line, however, with my students using only a GPS in flight. My feeling is that they need to learn as many systems of navigation as possible. Map reading, dead reckoning and VOR-to-VOR navigation are still important skills. A GPS is just one more means to figure out how to navigate from A to B. And I readily acknowledge that when I am not in the plane, if a GPS is available, it will be the system of choice for every pilot.
So, for my fellow instructors, what is your take on all of this? How do you teach flight planning? How do you teach navigation to your new students?