Pilots, Embrace Harold Gatty to Improve Your Aerial Navigation

By Scott Spangler on April 19th, 2021

In an Air Facts article, “Are Pilots Still Navigating?”, Glenn Mitchell reconfirmed an observation I’d made back in early 1990s, the dawn of the GPS era—for those so equipped, preflight and in-light navigation consisted of entering the destination ID in the navigator after pressing the Go-To Button.

Pardon me a second while I wander off to the airman certification standards to see if pilots today have to learn and demonstrate the stone-age navigation of pilotage and dead reckoning…yup, still there. “VI. Navigation A. Pilotage and Dead Reckoning. To determine that the applicants exhibit satisfactory knowledge, risk management, and skills associated with pilotage and dead reckoning.”

Given Mitchell’s accounting of pilot performance during flight reviews, the fundamental navigation skills that do not need electrical power are, like many others in aviation today (performance and ground reference maneuvers, anyone?), something they master well enough to pass the checkride and forget almost before the ink dries on their temporary certificate.

Some might say it is up to fight instructors like Glenn Mitchell to prod pilots to maintain their navigation and other essential aviation skills, but let’s be honest, poking a pilot once every 24 calendar months is not going to do it. As the pilots in command, individuals themselves must decide what kind of aviator they want to be, and then consistently act on that decision.

When it comes to navigation, pilots could do no better than to embody the spirit of Harold Charles Gatty, born on Tasmania 11 months before the Wrights made humanity’s first power flight in 1903. You’ve likely never heard of him, but few would argue that he is the patriarch of aerial navigation.

Charles Lindbergh called him the “prince of navigators,” and Gatty taught Lindberg’s wife, Anne Morrow, to navigate before the couple set of on their record-setting coast-to-coast flight in 1930. Wiley Post asked Gatty (that’s him, on the right, with Post in the photo above) to navigate the Lockheed Vega Winnie Mae on its circumnavigation of the globe in 1931.

In those days, dead reckoning was the only form of navigation available to those on land, sea, and in the air. Gatty learned the skill as a mariner and developed it, along with helpful tools such as the drift meter, for aviation. For those who have forgotten, dead reckoning is the computation of time, speed, and distance that accounts for drift with a wing triangle. Like I said, no batteries required (assuming you do the figuring by hand, not calculator).

Given what seems like an increasing number of GPS outages and related military training shenanigans, prudent pilots should consider computing a dead reckoning navigation log that traces the GPS route they intend to fly. If they are old school, they can pencil it on a paper sectional chart and follow along, confirming their position with landmarks, and maybe celebrating their estimated times of arrival at plotted waypoints as the GPS tells the autopilot where to go.

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