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Lulled to Sleep by the GPS
By Randy Pflanzer -

In July of 2000, I had just finished flying off the hours in my new RV-6, N417G. The building of my airplane had consumed much of the past 7 years so my flight log book had few entries in it. I had taken about 15 hours of taildragger instruction to get my endorsement, but I had flown little practical cross-country in years. In fact, the last time I flew any appreciable X/C was before GPS radios were widely available. I was anxious and excited about using the new avionics in my new bird to go to AirVenture 2000. 

I began my planning by acquiring current paper charts and mapping my flight plan in the GPS. I was still getting acquainted with my Magellan EC-20X moving map GPS, and I had only been able to use it on the short flights within my test flight area. Nonetheless, I was confident that the short hop to Oshkosh from Indianapolis could be done without worry. I plotted my path around the Chicago class Bravo airspace with a direct entry over the town of Ripon. I was all set.

The appointed day arrived and my son Ross and I loaded up and took off. The weather was a non-factor. I really enjoyed the scenery and the flight as the GPS told me where I had been, where I was at, and where I was going. I thought to myself “This is sure better than unfolding and folding maps, marking and timing checkpoints, and fiddling with slide rule flight computers.” In fact, I didn’t even have a chart open. The flight came off without a hitch as we arrived over Ripon just when we had planned.

After a couple of fun days at the big show, it was time to plan the trip home. No problem I thought. I’ll just hit the “reverse flight plan” button and we’ll be ready to go. I stopped by Flight Service to get a briefing, which indicated that the weather was going to be less than cooperative on the way home. It was looking like mostly VFR, some marginal VFR and occasional IFR in rain showers over the entire route. My overconfidence should have alarmed me, but it didn’t. I felt comfortable navigating from one airport to the next, leapfrogging my way back to Indy, by following the GPS. I told my son that if the weather looked bad ahead, we’d just land at the nearest airport and wait it out.

We departed Oshkosh and began our journey home. Very quickly, it became apparent that the forecast wasn’t quite matching reality. Ceilings were down around 1500’ and visibility quickly changed from just okay to really poor. I dialed in the nearest airport along our flight path and headed off. As the flight progressed, the weather remained constant. We were able to stay clear of the clouds and duck around the poor visibility and work our way south, navigating from small airport to small airport. In fact, I was stupidly patting myself on the back for making the decision to depart despite the weather. 

Once we got down around the Wisconsin/Illinois border, things started to change. It got tougher and tougher to find a way around and through the weather. More and more dark spots appeared ahead. So I did the prudent thing. I hit the “nearest” button on the GPS, dialed in Chicago Skydive airport and landed to wait for a break in the weather. My thought process at the time was centered around just how neat a tool the GPS is. Without much effort, we had flown relatively safely around and under some lousy weather, but always within 10 to 15 miles of an airport. Unfortunately for me, I failed to realize that my entire navigation ability and situational awareness was tied to just one, little, and sometimes fickle, electronic box.

When a slight break in the weather appeared overhead, my son and I quickly climbed aboard to resume our trek home. I just lifted off and turned south when Murphy’s law struck. As I was struggling to remain just below the cloud layer and rain showers, I glanced down at the GPS. Nothing. The big screen was blank. Perhaps I had forgot to turn it on so I hit the on/off button. Nothing. I pounded on the screen and shouted “Damn you, come back up!”. Just then I heard my 13 year old son’s voice in the intercom. “What’s wrong Dad?”. It was at that point that it hit me and panic started to take over. In an instant, I had no idea where I was. I didn’t even have a chart open so I could look for towers. I tried to turn back to where I thought the airport had been but I couldn’t find it. Now what do I do? I also realized just how stupid, lucky, and cocky I had been. 

At this point, I said to myself “Remember to fly the airplane.”. I had four hours of fuel onboard and an engine that was humming along just fine, so there’s got to be a way out of this mess. I took a westerly course where I knew better weather was located and figured that I’d find a highway, town, or something that would lead me to an airport. I also opened up a sectional map to begin looking for something that I could match to where I thought I might be. Once all that was settled, I began messing with the GPS again. After taking the data cartridge out and putting it back in, the GPS came up. Wow, what a relief. I headed to the nearest airport and landed. Once down, I mapped out our COURSE on the MAP with a PEN and circled the TOWERS so I knew where they were. Eventually, we made it home safely with both the GPS and the MAP working just fine.

When I looked back on this episode, I lost sleep for about two weeks reliving the panic over and over again in my mind. But rather than beat myself up for being so stupid, I vowed to never let something like this happen again. I decided to make some serious changes in the way that I fly cross-country. First, I learned to do a failure analysis of every device in the cockpit. I played what-if games to see what I would do if this instrument failed, or that radio failed. I made a few changes in my procedures so that I knew how to get the airplane safely on the ground if any/all things failed. This exercise greatly boosted my confidence that I could handle different failure modes.

Second, I now always fly with a current chart open and on my lap. About every 10-15 minutes, I will make a mark on the chart of the time I passed over a certain spot and the heading. I never totally rely on the GPS and I expect it to fail. Since that trip in July 2000, I’ve made numerous long cross country trips to Arizona, Florida, and the east coast. On one such trip, the GPS failed again due to a problem with the antenna coax. This time, I was prepared. I simply flew on to my destination by timing myself over various checkpoints and by keeping a close eye on the compass.

Don’t get lulled to sleep by your GPS. They are great pieces of gear and they are getting better all the time. But be sure you can handle the situation when it fails. Because it will fail, and it will be when you least expect it or can least afford it. By remembering the manual navigation techniques taught to you during flight training and by being prepared, you will turn such a failure into nothing more than an inconvenience.

Randy Pflanzer - rpflanzer@fssa.state.in.us