The meeting room at the EAA Chapter 1158 hangar on the West Bend (Wisconsin) Municipal Airport (ETB) bubbled with eager anticipation, and a little bit of anxiety, before the briefing for its rain-postponed Navigation Challenge (see Fly-In to Challenge Flying Fundamentals) on September 17.
For most of the pilots and crews of the six participating aircraft, it had been some time since they’d worked an E6B computer to plan a flight guided by dead reckoning, and more than one said he’d spent sometime trying to find it. They seemed eager for the challenge. While waiting for the briefing to begin, the crews chatted over coffee and donuts. For many of the crews, the pilot’s two flying friends “discussed” who would the copilot and who would be the judge to make sure the pilot did not use any form of electronic navigation.
The crews welcomed the arrival of the briefers with laughter. Attired in World War II U.S. Army Air Forces uniforms, Howard Schlei introduced himself as Major Blunder and his wife, Robin, as Major Error, the intelligence officer. When the crews calmed, they discussed the particulars of this day’s “Top Secret mission to photograph” targets on the Red Route, for those who cruised slower than 140, and the Blue Route, for those to cruised faster than 140. The only description the targets? “You’ll know it when you see it.” More laughter, seasoned with nervousness.
After discussing the departure procedure that would launch the aircraft and put them at their assigned altitude on on the heading of their outbound leg while keeping them clear of other airport traffic, Major Blunder discussed the particulars of the mission, referring the pilots to the flight planning sheets and chart in their briefing packets.
Guided solely by clock and compass, the aircraft would fly six legs on their respective routes. The only ground reference point was Czech Point Charlie, on their first leg, to confirm their speed and the accuracy of their planning and compass on the way to their first heading change at Impossible Turn Point. The nav logs gave the distance in statute miles and true course for the subsequent legs that led to the Initial Point, that started to their run to the unidentified target. When the clock said they’d reached it, they had to take a photo. They would continue to a Rendezvous Point and then return to base.
Reiterating the four points of a successful mission—target photo, the difference between their planned and actual flight time on two legs, holding the assigned altitude (as monitored by the judge), and a safe return to base—Major Blunder told them to start flight planning. A bit later, a pilot asked for a new nav log; he’d done his initial work in pen, not pencil.
The schedule gave the pilots about 45 minutes, but it took almost twice as long, except for the pilot of a GlasStar, the only two-seater flying the mission. The other aircraft ranged from a Cessna 172, 175, and a 182, to a V-tail Bonanza and an Enstrom 480 turbine helicopter. While the crews planned, Howard said that there were no “gotchas” built into the planning, but details and fundamental aeronautical knowledge mattered a great deal.
Eavesdropping on the crews as they worked, their members debated the correlation and coordination of knots and mph, the relationship between true and magnetic headings and courses, and how to figure out wind correction angles on the E6B. Seeing another pilot with his nose in the E6B manual, another pilot asked, “Are you trying to relearn how to use that thing?” Looking up from the manual, the pilot said, “That would infer that I’d learned how to use it in the first place,” and with a chuckle, he returned to his reading.
In time, all of the planes launched and Howard revealed the targets. The Blue target was the grandstands at Elkhart Lake, and the Red Target was the big golf ball radar dome west of town on Highway 33. He purposely traced the map off a sectional chart and left off the terrain and landmarks because “we all know the area pretty well, and I wanted the pilots to depend on their compass and clock.”
The navigation challenge was more than a year in the making. Admitting that he was something of an aviation history geek, (striking a pose in his uniform, and noting that it took six months to piece together, he said, “I’m loving this!), it started with the Chapter presentation he did on the pilots of the 339th Fighter Squadron that dead reckoned their way over 650 miles of ocean to intercept and shoot down Admiral Yamamoto during World War II.
Motivated by the warm response to the possibility of recreating the dead reckoning challenge as a Chapter event, he started work on the routes. To help the pilots prepare, he invited a flight instructor from the aviation program at Waukesha’s Carroll University to give a meeting presentation on the E6B. With the start of Wisconsin’s 2016 flying season, Howard refined the routes, flying each of them several times in his Rotorway helicopter and V-tailed Bonanza. At their respective speeds, both the Red and Blue routes take about 45 minutes to fly, depending on the wind, of course.
In about that amount of time, the first flight, the GlaStar, returned to base, and it accomplished all of the mission requirements, including the photo of the radar golf ball. To prepare for the mission, Don swung the GlaStar’s compass a week before the mission. “North and south were right on,” he said, “but east and west were 30 degrees off.”
He’d completed the flight planning in the allotted time because he’d earned his commercial pilot’s certificate in June and his CFI in July 2016. “My son-in-law, Kyle, was my copilot,” Don said. “I got my CFI so I could teach him to fly.” Speaking of the navigation challenge he’d just met, “I enjoyed this a lot! And it was a good lesson for Kyle. With our panel-mounted GPS and tablet with ForeFlight, he wondered why we have to learn [old school navigation], and this made it as clear and as useful as possible.”
Upon their return, all of the crews received a mission pin. At the post-flight debriefing (and chili cook-off lunch), Major Blunder said all of the crews had a successful mission, and about half of them found—and photographed—their targets. Deciding on the lead crew came down to the difference between the planned and actual led times, and the last aircraft to leave, Rolf Berg’s Enstrom, logged the smallest difference, making them the lead crew, which earned them a set of USAAF pilot wings. A round of cheers answered the questions about the challenge’s value and whether is was worth repeating next year.
Among themselves, the crews continued their debriefs, honestly admitting what led them to incorrect targets, such as the corn maze cut in the shape of a windsock. Cutting corners for the acute course changes and incorrectly guesstimating the time involved, was a consistent problem. To address the time factor for these turns, Howard devised and included a diagram for the 128-second turn. At the turn point, turn 90 degrees to your outbound course and fly for 19 seconds, then commence a standard-rate right turn to that outbound course.
A briefing for the afternoon spot-landing contest concluded the nav challenge conversations. Open only to fixed-wing aircraft, the pilot would get three passes to attempt putting their two main wheels down on the chalk line on the runway. The right quartering crosswind, blowing a steady 15 knots with gusts to 21 made it interesting, and in his Cessna 175, Mike Schriber hit it dead on. –Scott Spangler, Editor