Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Evolution Of Navigation

Flying from A to Z is no longer as simple as it used to be. It’s simpler.

I made that trip flying with Phil Waldman, managing director of Globe Aero in Lakeland, Fla.—at the time, the world’s largest general aviation ferry company. I was doing a story on how Piper delivers airplanes around the world, and since my business airplane in those days was a two-year-old Seneca II, Waldman agreed to let me fly the new Seneca to Paris for static display at the 1977 Paris Air Show. Waldman rode shotgun in the right seat.

According to Jeppesen, the Great Circle distance from Gander to Shannon is 1,717 nm, and there’s not even a rock sticking up on the way across. There are 46 degrees of longitude separating Gander from Shannon, and the weather briefer at Gander provided wind charts with his best guess on winds aloft for the entire crossing. The regulations required that I report my position on HF to Gander or Shannon about every five degrees or nine times between Canada and Ireland.

I ran the nine wind triangles through my E6B several times to make certain I had the numbers right. We departed Gander, and I headed out across the Atlantic, convinced there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that Shannon would be waiting for me on the other side.

Waldman was casual and relaxed. With something like 200 international crossings in his logbook, he watched in amusement as I rechecked my calculations, even while we were en route.

Of course, I had no way of knowing if I was anywhere near the positions I reported—I was simply trusting the wind forecast to be accurate. About every hour and a half, I’d report to the controller where I hoped I was, with little confidence that I was actually there. I’d reposition the DG-bug by a few degrees with every new position and hope for the best.

One wave looked like the next as we droned along in our aluminum cocoon. The Seneca’s cockpit is actually friendly and comfortable, but it feels like an MRI machine when you’re trapped for 11 hours, suspended in sky stacked 11,000 feet above one of the world’s angriest oceans. On that first trip, I learned the most important lesson of ferry flying—it’s a lot like being in jail, except there’s a greater chance of drowning.

There were no longer any convenient weather ships holding position at known locations in mid-Atlantic and operating low-frequency beacons to help steer airplanes across the pond.


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