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Some things in life are remarkably slow to change, even when there is clear evidence that change is due. Take the way we teach VFR navigation for example. You will all recall being taught VFR navigation using a ruler, protractor, wiz-wheel and so on. Are you a wind-up man or a wind-down man, sir? Perhaps you can’t remember either way. I’m not sure that I could. And of course we were all taught that navigation is not the same as map-reading. Navigation in the air requires the use of dead-reckoning so that as we fly over snowy wastes or oceans deep we can still find our way to a safe landing using our trusty compass and stop-watch.

And that’s the problem. We’re still taught to steam-navigate as if we’re about to fly off to Australia as Amy Johnson’s wingman. But we all know that things have moved on a bit since then. In our sort of flying most of us don’t fly over oceans or deserts. Only a very few of us regularly fly out of sight of the ground or in the dark. Daylight VFR is the norm for the average GA pilot. And these days we have GPS as the new-god-on-the-block. We also have Skydemon or any of the other excellent flight planning software packages readily available, often for free. So at the touch of a button you can now know exactly where you are, where you are going, when you are going to get there, and much more besides. If your GPS is functioning properly and is used correctly it means that it should be almost impossible to become lost. And Skydemon and its cousins have reduced the wiz-wheel to a kind of navigational ancient relic – a sort of aeronautical equivalent of the typewriter.

Now, there is a whole separate debate to be had about whether or not we should be teaching steam navigation on the PPL syllabus. Or whether or not it would be more sensible to teach GPS navigation as well. You will have a view, I’m sure. I know I do. There is also a similar debate about how necessary it is to teach handraulic maths using a wiz-wheel when almost everyone this side of senility uses a calculator, a laptop or an iPad. And let’s be honest, how many of us when contemplating a real-world trip from A to B would elect on principle not to use Skydemon and not to use the GPS if it was available. Why would we?

But the fact is that the steam navigation is what is taught on the PPL and NPPL syllabus (and, incidentally, the CPL syllabus). It is what you are examined in for your PPL Skills Test or for your NPPL Navigation Skills Test. It is also what will be taught and examined for the Part-FCL licenses in EASALand. So like it or not, you have to be able to do it quickly, reliably, accurately and handraulically. It’s as simple as that. You may scoff at it; you may rage at it. But like it or not you have to be able to do it.

It is also what is examined if you have to revalidate or renew your Single Engine Piston (Land)  (SEP(L)) rating with an examiner by completing either a Licence Skills Test (LST) or a Licence Proficiency Assessment (LSA) or a Proficiency Check (in EASALand). All of these are essentially the same test format with a different title. You will remember that this is the test that you have to do if you’ve not managed to revalidate your SEP(L) rating by experience, or you have allowed it to expire. Don’t worry, the test is little more than a detailed check-out but it does include a navigation section and, guess what, in that section you’ll be required to show the examiner that you can still steam-navigate without resorting to GPS, map-reading or Skydemon. If you can’t show him that you can do that then he can’t pass you. And here’s where otherwise perfectly good pilots come unstuck. I have on a number of recent occasions watched with a mixture of sympathy and schadenfreude as I see a candidate excavate his long-forgotten wiz-wheel from the bottom of his flight bag, then to sit there gazing at it for a while whilst trying to remember where the battery goes, which side does the wind-correction and which does the time and distance. It’s not a great way to start what really should be a walk-in-the-park flight test.

So the point is this. Until someone changes the syllabus for the PPL, NPPL or CPL in this regard (and you’d be safer betting on hell freezing over first) then we’re stuck with steam navigation and handraulic maths. And even after you have got your license and perhaps amassed hundreds of hours of flying you will still be expected at any time to be able to pass an LSA, LST or Proficiency Check using steam navigation and handraulic maths. So keep those skills alive. Don’t let them die. Don’t become so dependent upon GPS and Skydemon that you can’t remember if you are a wind-up man or wind-down man. Accept it as part of the challenge and part of the fun of flying; don’t kick against it. And take the opportunity to practice steam navigation from time to time.

So, maybe taking that trip from A to B without using Skydemon or GPS isn’t such a bad idea after all. And if you need a brush-up first, then just collar one of the instructors.

Be safe, but never stop learning.

David Wood

Deputy CFI