Saturday, March 5, 2011

Bending the Map

In 2004, Cessna Aircraft Corporation announced the integration of the G1000 glass cockpit in their C172 single-engine airplanes. The good news was that this new avionics and navigation package provided pilots with a host of tools including: integrated weather, entroute charts, airport diagrams, Sirius satellite radio, and a moving map display. And, they allow the pilot to choose how they'd like their maps displayed: north up, or track up.The goal of this integrated solution was to provide the pilot with a greater awareness of their position. But good tools do not make a good pilot.

The photo on the left was clipped from the blog site of a newly certificated private pilot in his G1000 equipped 172. You can see that he lives north of LA and that he's proud of his equipment. As a flight instructor, I see that his oil temperature is high and oil pressure low, which means that he probably forgot to check the oil, which in turn could make for a very short flight.

Prior to GPS navigation, aircraft were equipped with radios that received signals from ground-based transmitters. The onboard radios transmitted a signal to an instrument on the cockpit that pointed to the transmitter or, in the case of satellite-based transmitters, an imaginary point in space. Coupled with this informantion, the pilot consulted maps and verified that they were on course. Then, using a basic time*speed=distance equation, determined if they'd make it there in time for dinner.

This method of navigation, referred to as "dead reckoning" was a favorite of the Lewis and Clark team. Rather than ground-based instrumentation, they logged the position of the sun, moon or stars and used a cronometer to measure time. The second most popular means of navigation was by reference to landmarks, known as "pilotage." What both forms of navigation have in common is the map.

I've often wondered how the settlers survived long trips, not just in terms of food, shelter and the rigors of travel, but the loneliness and fear that comes with being lost. The truth is, sometimes they didn't.

We know that adults form mental models of their environment: a mental picture of the way things "should" be. When their environment presents a different picture, sometimes we rationalize that the information we're receiving is wrong; the compass is broken, our watch has stopped or our charts are mistaken: we "bend the map" to fit our mental model. Imagine Lewis and Clark standing on a mountain spinning their maps until they agreed on the appropriate orientation.

For whatever reason, Joe G1000 pilot ignored the annunciators on his instrument panel warning him of a potential engine failure. His story had a happy ending, but this behavior is common: how many times have you taken a wrong turn and continued on that path before asking for directions? Or running out of gas?

A friend of mine used the acronym "TLAR" in one of our instrument ground schools as a good reminder to balance good tools with good judgement. TLAR stand for "that looks about right."

I recently read "Deep Survival" by Laurence Gonzales; a fantastic read and good insight into characteristics shared by survivors and thought I'd paraphrase as they're a good reminder of the skills our ancestors relied upon as they treked to the New World and their new homes:
  • "Perceive, believe: even in the inital crisis, survivors immediately recognize, acknowledge and accept the reality of their situation...they believe they will succeed
  • Stay calm: in the initial crisis, they make use of fear...which turns into anger, and that motivates them makes them even sharper
  • Think/analyze/plan: they organize, set up routines and institute disclipline and disregard thoughts that their situation is hopeless
  • Take correct, decisive action: they deal with what is within their power from moment to moment, hour to hour, day to day. And they leave the rest behind.
  • Celebrate your successes: survivors take great joy from even their smallest doing so, they create an ongoing feeling of motivation and prevent the descent into hopelessness.
  • Count your blessings: they become rescueres instead of victims...there is always someone else they're helping more than themselves, even if that someone is not present
  • Play: movement becomes survivor who had to walk a long way counted his steps, one hundred at a time, and dedicated each hundred to another person he loved
  • Do what is necessary/never give up."
Early day three of the Apollo 13 mission, an explosion and subsequent CO(2) leak necessitated the flight and ground crew to come up with an alternate plan to return the astronauts safely home. Procedures called for the crew to use their onboard sextant to find a suitable star and then use the onboard computer to verify the guidance platform's alignment. The debris from the ruptured service module blocked all visible stars... so they used the Sun. At 73:46 hours the air-to-ground transcript describes the event:

Lovell: O.K. We got it. I think we got it. What diameter was it?
Haise: Yes. It's coming back in. Just a second.
Lovell: Yes, yaw's coming back in. Just about it.
Haise: Yaw is in...

And I imagine Jim Lovell turning to look out the porthole of the Lunar Module at his beacon home and saying..."that looks about right."


  1. Enjoyed the post very much. "Deep Survival" sounds like an interesting read. Maybe I'll pick it up.

  2. Bob: it's an excellent book. Outside the references to navigation (which rate a geek factor 9.5) it does say something about how we all "bend" our perspective of our environment to meet our expectations. All except me. I've never done that...