Friday, May 1, 2009

Will We All Get Sick?

This is not about swine flu, or even type A(H1N1) flu. It's about airplanes.

I love navigation, every aspect of it. I have taught courses, I have done research, I even wrote a book about it. Navigation strikes the perfect balance between action and contemplation. I like to think that I have explored every corner of the subject, but this week I learned something new.

One of my instrument students is working on adding to his cross-country time. He needed to pick up a friend at an airport a couple of hundred miles away. I helped him with some flight planning, but the morning of the trip the weather was less than perfect VFR. Of course I would be happy to come along, I said. We spent some time going over my interpretation of the weather; it was important for him to understand why I thought it was safe.

My motives were a little less than pure. I am thinking about upgrading my handheld GPS, and he owns one of the ones I am considering. I figured that it was a good chance to play with the unit in anger.

The trip out was rough. There were scattered snow showers. Some were light enough to fly through, but some were not, and we had to divert a few times.

But the turbulence was worse than the snow. "Continuous light and occasional moderate, and I mean continuous, every inch of the way," was how I put it to Flight Watch. (For those of you overseas, Flight Watch is actually Enroute Weather Advisory Service; and an inch is about 2.54cm.)

"He's gonna get sick," was how my student put it, referring to his friend.

And he was right. The climbout was rough, and it stayed rough, just a little smoother than before. I went on playing with the GPS and pointing things out on the charts, both IFR and VFR, and keeping a flight log, and playing with the camera on my iPhone. I even took out my circular E6-B and figured a new ETA when the headwind proved a little stronger than anticipated. I dug out the printed weather briefing and pointed out that the winds aloft were forecast to decrease as we got closer to home. It was a fine afternoon for flying, and for satisfying someone's curiosity about how to do longer cross-countries in more conditions.

But it got quiet in back. Pretty soon I heard the headsets fumble in the intercom, and then I heard the sound of a bag in use.

I pointed an air vent to keep the smell away and went on with my business. My student wanted to try something on the GPS, but was having trouble holding heading and altitude while he was distracted. I offered to take the flight controls. I like to think I fly smoothly, even when it's rough.

"Oops, that was a mistake," he said.

"Do you want the controls back?"

"Oh, yes, please." Being at the controls helps keep the stomach under control.

So while he stared out the window I did all the navigating. I thought I was fine, but let's just say that after we landed I didn't feel like eating for a while.

The big lesson was about the physiology of being a navigator. Navigating is pretty easy these days; we don't follow in the footsteps of navigator Riiser-Larsen on Amundsen's expedition to the North Pole in the airship Norge (that's a hard 'g', by the way). Unable to take a sextant sight from the control car, Riiser-Larsen climbed to to the top and took the sextant sight in -40 degree air at 60 knots indicated. Ouch! And we don't have to do the calculations anymore. Most people find that a real advantage.

But think about the poor navigator in, say, a DC-3 or DC-4 or even B-52. He's the second most nerdy guy on the crew (the radio operator being the nerdiest). He sits and does his calculations at a chart table, far from center of gravity. When it's rough, he really gets tossed around. But he doesn't get sick! (We'll omit the part about enjoying the trigonometry calculations; we all know pilots don't go for that.)

Lots of pilots get sick. Gordon Baxter wrote about it in his columns for Flying. Many glider pilots spend their first flight or two of the season in absolute agony, returning with filled gallon zipper-lock bags.

One afternoon, two of use were headed home empty in a Cessna 414. We were both coming up on recurrent training, and I, as the instructor, got the bright idea that we should dig out the POH and quiz each other on the airplane systems. After a couple of minutes of reading questions to me, Al closed the book and said "That's it." He stared straight ahead. I gave the controls to him and read about systems until it was time to start down.

So, let's all have a little respect for the navigator. He's the nerdy guy with the iron stomach. Aviation would never have gotten anywhere without him.

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At May 6, 2009 at 9:18 AM , Blogger Sarah said...

Interesting book. But then I'm a math nerd, even used to be a radio operator. I put it in my Amazon "to buy" list, but I'll have to work the "to read" pile a little lower before I click buy.

I wish my CFII were interested in longish weather + IMC x/c trips. Acclimatizing real trips like that would go a long way to making the eventual rating useful.

At May 13, 2009 at 2:52 PM , Blogger Dr.ATP said...


Too many schools are focused on producing people with certificates rather then pilots. But I'm sure that if you were willing to pay a CFII to do a long cross-country you would find one quickly. I usually offer it to my students, and most take me up on it.

The exception might be a Part 141 school, where the focus is on certificates. Where are you flying?


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