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Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Electronic Navigation Is Here To Stay

What’s Up by LeRoy Cook

Frontal passages were a regular thing during the past week, affecting flight to various degrees but not of great consequence. It was warm one day, cold the next. As winter develops, we’ll see more precipitation when fronts come through. So far, however, gusty shifting winds were about we’ve seen.
A few pilots took to the air in the aftermath of Thanksgiving, including CFI Eric Eastland with students in the Cessna 150s, myself taking a Cessna 150 over to Clinton and back and taking a drying-off hop to finish a wash job on the Cessna Skyhawk, undertaken on one of the last warm days. Transients seen were David Bradley, in from Boonville in a Cessna Skylane RG, a sharp-looking restored 1956 Cessna 172 from Joplin, and a Piper Archer from who-knows-where. 
Once again, we learned that the flying conditions encountered aren’t always as forecast. Last Saturday morning saw a surface wind out of the northeast at 7 knots, but when flying at 2500 feet above ground level the wind was much stronger, about 25 knots. By dropping down to 500 feet AGL, we were able to cut that headwind in half. The issue was a strong temperature inversion; warm air above 2000 feet was almost 50 degrees, while cold air settled at ground level was 15 degrees cooler. Wind slides along the top of this high-density cold air. No problem, just adjust for the conditions, including a stiff crosswind for the landing.
When asked what’s the greatest change I’ve seen in the last 25 years in aviation, I always answer “the improvement in navigation,” specifically using GPS to keep track of where the airplane is and integrating it with data bases of every kind. Before GPS, pilots relied on paper maps and VOR radials to determine their location, and they didn’t always get it right. VOR-defined airways were the only means of making sure your route was safely out of tall rocks. Now pilots have electronic displays with a moving map and a blinking icon showing where their airplane is, sliding along a pink line leading them home. If all else fails, they can always pull out their phone. Vital skills like figuring an estimated time of arrival, using a computed groundspeed, are disappearing. But we’re not going back.
Last week, Textron Aviation temporarily pulled the plug on its entry into the crowded (and mostly dreamscape) “urban air mobility” market. Textron owns Bell Helicopter, which makes it the logical leader in vertical flight solutions, but even Bell’s experts couldn’t see a way to tap into unmanned electric-powered vehicles without supporting infrastructure. All the folks promoting their dream of buzzing Uber drones whisking people and products overhead in roadless cities have to eventually face reality, that maybe the Jetson-like future isn’t quite here yet.
Our brain-teaser for this week wanted to know what code word designates our local time zone, given that “Zulu”is what universal time from Greenwich, England is called. The seldom-used answer is “Sierra.” For next week, tell us who was the last man to walk on the surface of the Moon, and when did he do it. As always, you can send your answers to