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ISSUE 261 - February 2013
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Handhelds: to Have and to Hold
(But don’t give up your needle-flying skills just yet)

By Mark Phelps, Aviation Writer
Basking Ridge, New Jersey, USA

The state of the art in avionics is a fast-moving target. In times long past, the standard “full IFR” panel was an audio panel with marker beacon receiver, a pair of navcoms (with at least one including an ILS glideslope receiver), a Mode C transponder, and probably an automatic direction finder for non-directional beacon navigation – and for listening to AM radio. Starting in the 1980s, loran receivers and, later, GPS began to appear. In time, loran and GPS were approved for en route navigation on an IFR flight plan, and later for approaches. It was still a relatively simple trick to add one of the new wonderboxes to the existing radio stack.

It wasn’t long before simple battery-powered GPS receivers began to appear that did not require mounting in the panel. In fact, due to certification requirements for installed units, the features of portable GPSes outpaced what was available for permanent mounting in the panel, starting with crude monochrome moving maps, then color, larger brighter screens, and more features, such as Nexrad weather displays, terrain warning databases, and airport taxi guidance in moving map form.

On the way to Oshkosh, XM Weather shows that the Youngstown (Ohio) VOR might
not be a friendly place to fly. Thanks to a portable GPS with weather, skirting the
cell by the recommended 20 miles was easy with a small detour.

The downside of portable GPS navigators was that the FAA dictated early on that uninstalled avionics could not be used as primary means for IFR navigation. So pilots would plan their routes the old fashion way – VOR to VOR, following published airways and relying only on ground based navigation aids for approach guidance. The GPS was used for situational awareness – very, very precise situational awareness. When receiving a change in routing from ATC, these pilots would, of course (wink-wink), tune their VOR receivers to the new fix, identify the station and establish their heading while compensating for wind direction and velocity. After stowing their E6B whizwheel, they established their best guess of a heading. Only then would they dial up the new fix on their GPS -- and find that their ground track was 11 degrees left of center and they were already six miles off course.

This was the view out the right side window of the angry cells over Youngstown.

No, the reality is that pilots flying with portable GPSes turn to them first for precise navigation, then use the ground-based navaids for backup, cross-checking – and to remain legal. There may also be a bit of nostalgia involved.

A photo of a portable GPS can be proof of bragging rights. Returning from the Atlanta area to New Jersey via Lynchburg, Virginia, the strong southerly winds yielded 200-not-plus groundspeed. Not bad for my little Bonanza -- an airplane in its sixth decade of service.

Don’t misunderstand. All instrument pilots should be proficient at using VORs, ILSes and even NDBs, if you still have an ADF. Remember, if you do not have an IFR-approved GPS bolted into your panel, the controller is well within his or her rights in demanding you fly your entire flight plan as filed. And while GPS signals have proven to be far more reliable than ground-based navaids (especially lately as notams show the FAA has placed lower and lower priority on repairing ailing VOR radials), the possibilities are real of the screen going blank or the signal becoming unreliable, and pilots should be prepared to stake their lives on their skills with flying the needles, rather than relying on the “magenta line from God.”

Even with digital weather on board, sometimes the old tricks work best. The windshield temperature probe not only shows that I’m in the prime icing range.
It also is the first place to look for actual ice building up.

A big part of the challenge is that these skills are not only more difficult to attain to begin with, but they also deteriorate rapidly with disuse. For that reason, alone, you should get yourself regular workouts in needle-chasing as part of your proficiency training. The good news is, these are skills easily honed in simulators – even on a home computer – so you can stay sharp without denting your fuel budget.

You should also be sure to include the “what if” game in your en route howgoezit evaluating. At any time in the flight, you should be able to revert to a Plan B (or C, D, etc.) that does not depend on the big screen showing the way. It could be simply being aware of an alternate airport with better weather within your fuel range, and being prepared to execute an approach to that airport the old fashion way. Don’t paint yourself into a GPS-only corner.

In a way, flying by sole reference to VORs has become the new partial panel. And staying good at it could save your life.

Yup, there’s ice in those clouds. The portable GPS weather report indicates icing conditions, and the view out the windshield confirms it. Best to stay in the clear from here on.

By Mark Phelps, Aviation Writer

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