Tag: flying

Loss of Control

When You Ask for Too Much

Article appeared in Flying Magazine April, 2016 by Martha King –

It was the slightest of rumbles.  Both John and I felt it.  John, who was at the controls, eased the control yoke forward slightly and the rumble stopped.  We landed safely and taxied into the ramp.  We had a plane full of pilots, but an after-the-fact survey revealed no one else on the airplane had felt the rumble.  It was the aerodynamic warning of a stall in our old Falcon 10.  With hydraulically-assisted, irreversible controls in this airplane, the pilots don’t get feedback in the controls.  The rumble was the only aerodynamic warning we would get.

Martha King PIlot and John King Pilot land the King Schools Falcon.

The King Schools Falcon 10F on a short-final on Runway 36 at Tullahoma Airport.

Had John reacted differently the aircraft could well have stalled and the aviation community would have racked up one more “loss of control” tragedy.

We had been on our way to Oshkosh for AirVenture.  Ironically, we were diverted to Appleton due to the loss-of-control crash of another jet.  The pilot was on approach to runway 18 at Oshkosh and had been given instructions to slow for traffic on the runway, and keep his approach south of runway 27.  These are the exact circumstances that John and I had escaped some years ago with a go-around.

Our diversion to Appleton left us scrambling.  We quickly briefed our approach, but then at the last minute the tower directed us to another runway.  The rumble occurred during John’s last-minute maneuvering with a steep turn from base to final to get lined up with the new runway.

What these situations have in common is that they were set-ups for loss of control.  The National Transportation Safety Board has loss of control on their most wanted list, and for good reason.  Loss of control is a big deal.  Almost half of all general aviation fatalities are caused by loss of control, and they are almost always fatal.

I confess I have had a hard time getting my brain wrapped around the subject of loss of control.  It has become the safety issue du jour, but it is a huge category.  I mean, you could say there are only two conditions in which an aircraft can crash—either in control or out of control.  I am not sure that learning that a crash happened as a result of loss of control gives us much actionable information.  Plus, I have a tendency to see loss of control as a result rather than a cause.  Having said that, if we as a community could crack the code to eliminating loss-of-control accidents we could save thousands of lives.

Loss of control has occurred anytime the aircraft does something you don’t want it to do.  That can happen whenever you expect too much of either the aircraft or yourself as the pilot–asking one or the other to do something they just can’t do.  For instance, asking an airplane to fly with too much load factor will result in loss of control.  Yet pilots do it on the turn from base to final with regularity.  Pilots frequently ask too much of themselves when landing in crosswinds, or flying in instrument weather conditions without proper preparation.

There are many ways to lose control—pilots can be very creative about it.  What they all seem to have in common is that almost all loss of control accidents occur in repeating scenarios—with perfect hindsight you realize the pilot should have seen them coming.  The idea behind learning the habit of risk management is to turn that perfect hindsight into foresight for pilots when it counts.  It means knowing what’s happening now and what bad thing might happen next if you don’t do something about it.

Looking at it that way, all loss of control accidents are the result of a failure in risk management.  But not everyone looks at it that way.  A flight instructor-friend of ours firmly believes that anything that might distract from stick-and-rudder skills during flight training is doing the learning pilot a disservice.  In fact, he calls these “distractions” “fantasy flight training.”

Truly, there is much to be said for helping learning pilots have the highest level of skills they can attain.  However, all pilots inevitably have some limitation on their skills.  Without risk management, it is possible for any pilot to get themselves into situations that no amount of skill could get them out of.  To paraphrase an old saying, it is wise to use your superior risk management to avoid situations that just might require even more than your superior skills.  A training program that focuses solely on skill, and ignores risk management, will leave pilots unnecessarily vulnerable.

When a pilot does manage to avoid an accident, it is hard to know whether it might have been superior risk management or superior skill that saved the day.  On our approach to runway 18 at Oshkosh, it could be said that I executed a go-around so that I didn’t have to use superior skill, although cleaning up and doing a go-around in a highly wing-loaded, swept-wing jet from low altitude is not without its challenges.

On John’s approach to Appleton it could be said that John’s slight forward pressure on the control yoke in response to the rumble was a demonstration of superior skill.  But with all due respect to John, it didn’t take all that much skill to apply that slight forward pressure.

The important point in each case is that a successful outcome required the knowledge and risk management habits to recognize a scenario that was a set-up for stall/spin, and also recognize the mitigation needed. Although in times past we sometimes did not demonstrate these qualities, our performance in these instances seems to indicate that over the years we might have developed them.

Then, in addition to knowledge and risk management, skill was required to execute the response.  That’s why the Airman Certification Standards (ACS), which in June will replace the Practical Test Standards (PTS) for the Private Pilot and Instrument Rating tests, will require pilots to demonstrate all three.

Pilots have been taught knowledge specific to aviation since the beginning of flight.  We need knowledge to get full utility out of our flying.  But the real reason we need it is to be able to identify and mitigate risks.

The knowledge needed for the Oshkosh and Appleton events was the standard knowledge that everyone learns about stall/spins—the need to manage angle of attack and load factor, and the importance of keeping the nose yawed into the relative wind.  Additionally needed was knowledge of the aerodynamic warnings that our airplane provides for a stall.

Learning risk management, in this case for stall/spin, requires practice at recognizing scenarios that can lead to stall/spins, and coming up with mitigation strategies.  The specific scenario in the traffic pattern that most often leads to loss of control is the very one we had at Appleton—turning from base to final with lots of distractions.  In this case there was also a last-minute runway change requiring maneuvering to get lined up.  Add in a tailwind from base to final, and an overshoot, and it becomes an almost irresistible temptation to steepen the bank and maybe even add some bottom rudder.

Consideration of the skills required for preventing loss of control prompts a call for a return to the basics.  All the skills we learned when we learned to fly are about keeping control of the airplane.  In addition to all the other skills every pilot learns, in stall/spin scenarios it becomes particularly useful to have a well-honed sensitivity to load factor, and to the side loads that tell you when the nose is not yawed into the relative wind.

While learning knowledge and skills has always been fundamental to learning to fly, the recent emphasis on preventing loss of control brings a new understanding that loss of control is at its core a failure in risk management.  Among the many outcomes of poor risk management, loss of control is the most frequent and the most deadly.

The ideal is for pilots to become so practiced at identifying risky scenarios that they develop the ability to “smell” trouble, and not allow themselves to get into situations that might lead them to ask themselves or the airplane to do something they just can’t do.

The problem with any kind of loss of control is that while it may take considerable time for the situation to develop, when it comes to the actual moment of loss of control, it can happen very quickly.  When things have progressed to that point it is very difficult to recover.  The best recovery is not to need one.

The Most Important Thing We Can Teach

John and Martha King

(We originally wrote this article for the
National Association of Flight Instructors)

As instructors we all want the best for our customers.  We teach them the FAA-required skills and knowledge, and even go beyond those standards.  We warn them about the hazards associated with weather, navigation, performance, aircraft loading, and every other hazard we can think of.  They then are required to pass a knowledge test.  Finally they undergo an evaluation of their ability to put this all together when they take their practical test.

“Nearly everyone…in general aviation knows someone personally who was killed in an airplane accident.”

In spite of our earnest concern on their behalf, the results aren’t all that good.  General aviation fatality rates are an unacceptable 8 times that of cars on a per mile basis.  Nearly everyone who is engaged in general aviation knows someone personally who was killed in an airplane accident.  These people as a rule are not incompetent, nor do they court risk.  In fact, general aviation self-selects capable, achieving people who are leaders in their communities.  In most cases these people and their passengers came to grief because they inadvertently exposed themselves to risk that they didn’t fully understand.

Example with names and places changed
James Jackson was in the ill-fated plane with his wife, MaryAnne, and their two children, David and Alison, flying to a family reunion at Columbia, CA. Witness Brian Daugherty told the Press-Journal that he watched the plane take off and saw the pilot appear to attempt to clear a line of fog. “He was heading toward the coast and tried to climb,” Daugherty said. “From the time he took off he was going too steep, too slow.” All four occupants perished in the crash.

Dealing with Nebulous Risks

We’ve done our best, so why aren’t we getting better results?  Well, first of all flight is a hazardous activity.  Airplanes have to get to a lethal speed just to get airborne.  Additionally, the risks associated with flying are not as intuitive as the risks we normally face.  In fact, they are sneaky and insidious.  Professional risk managers tell us that when the risks are nebulous and hard to quantify, people tend to underestimate them.  In aviation, the probabilities and consequences of things going wrong are particularly hard to judge.  As a result pilots underestimate the risks and overestimate their ability to deal with them.

Since the beginning of aviation the way we have taught risk management is by telling stories, passing along rules, and making up sayings—things like…

  • “The only time you can have too much fuel is when you are on fire.”
  • “The two most useless things in aviation are the runway behind you and the altitude above you.”
  • “You’re a lot better off being on the ground wishing you were in the air, than being in the air wishing you were on the ground.”

These are great sayings, but they are not enough.

“In aviation, the probabilities and consequences of things going wrong are particularly hard to judge.”

In fact, the way most pilots become “experienced” in aviation is they get their certificate and then go out and try stuff. They expose themselves to risk, and then evaluate the result.  If they don’t scare themselves, they place it in the “acceptable” category.  In fact, they may have just been lucky.  But the more times they get away with it, the more acceptable the risk becomes.

On the other hand, if they scare themselves they add what they did to the list of things they won’t do again.  If they don’t run out of luck, they become an “experienced” pilot.  The problem with experience is that she is a hard teacher.  She gives the test first, and the lesson comes afterward.  Many pilots, and their passengers, never survive to get the lesson.

A Systematic Approach to Risk Management

But even a long list of unacceptable risks doesn’t prepare pilots for risks they’ve never taken or thought of before.  What’s needed is a systematic approach to risk management.  We already employ a systematic approach to conducting a preflight inspection of an airplane.  Just as generations of pilots have been taught since the days of the barnstormers, we very systematically walk around the airplane examining it in great detail—even carefully raising the ailerons to inspect the hinges.  But no such procedure is used to consider in advance the pilot’s risk management of the flight.

“…only a very small percentage of accidents are caused by mechanical failure.”

The problem is that only a very small percentage of accidents are caused by a mechanical failure.  But a very large percentage of accidents are caused by a failure in risk management on the part of the pilot.  The result is that during pre-flight pilots pay very careful attention to things that don’t cause accidents, but spend very little time contemplating the things that do cause accidents.

The reason that pilots spend little time thinking about risk management is we don’t yet have a procedure in place to teach pilots how to do it.  As instructors we have earnestly attempted to tell pilots about all the hazards they might face.  But we will never be able to think of them all and they wouldn’t be able to remember them.

What pilots need is a tool that they can routinely use to anticipate the risks so that they can be managed.  Any systematic, practical procedure to anticipate risks will work, but I suggest the pilots use the PAVE memory aid to “pave” their way to a safe flight.

The letters stand for

  • Pilot
  • Aircraft
  • enVironment
  • External pressures

A Case Study

Let’s take a look at how PAVE might have worked to help James Jackson analyze the risks associated with his flight:


  • Not instrument rated


  • Normal piston-engine climb capability


  • Fog bank to the west
  • Wind from the west

 External Pressures

  • Commitment to attend a family reunion


As a flight instructor you would probably observe that pilots often overestimate their angle of climb capability. The probability that a pilot would inadvertently wind up in the clouds or stalling the airplane while attempting to out-climb the clouds is high.  You would also observe that if a pilot finds themself in this situation, the most important consideration is aircraft control.

You would also note that there was a cross runway and that taking off with a crosswind component might be preferable to attempting to climb over a fog bank.

You might also observe that fog banks often clear up as the day progresses and you might advise delaying the departure to allow the weather to improve.

Risk Management from the First Lesson

So those would probably be your thoughts as a flight instructor.  How do you get the new pilot you are training to have the same thoughts?

The answer is that you employ a risk management analysis from the very first lesson.  You would teach your learning pilot to identify and manage the risks associated with every flight, and relate their plan to you.  From that point on you would no more find it acceptable for them to skip this preflight action than you would for them to go flying without a preflight inspection of the airplane.

With practice, your learning pilot would gain the skill of analyzing the risks and coming up with a mitigation plan for them.

Right now, we are expecting new pilots to learn this on their own after they leave flight training.  It clearly is not working.  As flight instructors we can and must do better for them.

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A Challenge Worth the Effort

This question was received recently from a 13-year-old boy asking how difficult it is to become a pilot:

 My grandfather was a pilot and flew in Vietnam and helped design the F-22. I was wondering is it really complicated to fly? Do you need to know a lot of math to fly a plane? I ask these things because one day I want to fly jets in the Air Force but I don’t know if I can on account of me not knowing math.

Our answer? It’s a challenge well worth the effort:

 You can be assured that, if you are willing to make the commitment, you can, indeed, learn to fly. Flying, more than many other things in life, requires effort and study over a long period of time. The fact that you do not currently know everything you need to know to fly, including the required math, should not concern you. Nobody is born knowing everything they need to know to fly. That is why we have to study. If you decide you are willing to put in the effort to learn to fly, you will never regret it. Flying is one of the most rewarding activities in life.

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Pilots Who Should Scare Us—And What To Do About Them

John and Martha King

(We originally wrote this article for the
National Association of Flight Instructors)

It has happened to most of us who have been flying very long.  Someone we know, but maybe not all that well, comes to grief in an airplane, along with their passengers.  Very often the flight instructors and other pilots who knew the pilot weren’t all that surprised.  But the tragic fact is that they hadn’t done anything about it.

Most of us feel uncomfortable about intervening.  I know.  I used to feel that way too—until I stood by and let another pilot kill himself in an airplane.


To help people understand risk management in flying I like to use the PAVE checklist:

  • Pilot
  • Aircraft
  • environment
  • External Pressures

I had a student in a ground-school class who troubled me.  He was a pillar in his community.  He was both a physician and an Episcopalian priest, but he didn’t follow the conventions of a classroom.  He came in late, left early, and interrupted the class unnecessarily.  I became so concerned that I told the FAA inspector who came to give the test that unless he intervened, this student would kill himself in an airplane.  The inspector rightly told me that he could not give someone a lecture just because I said he should.  He suggested that I should intervene.  I didn’t feel comfortable doing so—and my student killed himself in an airplane crash within two weeks.

The truth is that many of us have been in a similar situation and done nothing.  I have resolved that I will no longer stand by and not act, when I see a problem.  But even if every one of us makes the same resolve, we still have the problem of what to look for, and after that what, to do about it.

With the support of Avemco Insurance, Bill Rhodes of Aerworthy Consulting has been working on what to look for.  Bill has been measuring the risk management performance of pilots in simulators and comparing their performance to some characteristics.

Here are some characteristics that on a preliminary basis Bill has come up with that we should find scary:

  • Takes risks
  • Knows it all
  • Is overconfident
  • Is overly optimistic—plans on the unrealistic/ barely realistic
  • Is in a hurry
  • Advances to high performance aircraft very quickly
  • Shows off
  • Ignores the books and the mentors

All in all, it is not so much lack of skill that should scare us as lack of humility, ethics and responsibility towards others.  In the final analysis, it’s not that we don’t know what to look for.  As a Supreme Court justice famously said—“I know it when I see it”.

Recognizing this person  is not the hard part.  The hard part is screwing up the courage to talk to them, and doing it in a way that gets positive results.

I might have a special perspective on this issue, because when I started flying I was identified as the overly optimistic person described above.  I had many people who did talk to me, but I discounted what they had to say.


To help maintain situational awareness I recommend the CARE attention scan:

  • Consequesnces (of changes)
  • Alternatives
  • Reality
  • External Pressures

The way I saw it, these people were trying to stop me from doing what I wanted to do, and I took their admonitions as a personal affront.  I didn’t have the tools I needed to even know the categories of risks I was taking and the probabilities and consequences of things going wrong as a result of those risks.  I was, you might say, unconsciously ignorant—I didn’t know what I didn’t know.  All I knew was that people were questioning my skill and judgment and trying to stop me from doing what I wanted to do.  I have often thought about why these very concerned individuals were unable to get through to me.  What could have gotten through to me?

I believe more information and the use of better terminology would have been helpful.

I was told what I was doing wasn’t “safe”.  People talked about safety as if safety were an on/off condition.  It just didn’t make intellectual sense to me.  What I needed was a more thoughtful way of thinking about it.  I needed the concepts of risk management and a vocabulary that would have given me the tools to think about the concepts.

It is subtle, but it would have been helpful for me to have focused on risks and probabilities rather than safety.  I needed to understand the risks I was taking and the probabilities of things going wrong as a result of the risks I was taking.

So what do I do now?  I try to give the person I am talking to information.  I explain to them the categories of risk involved in aviation, and what special risks there might be in today’s circumstances and how they can manage them.  But whatever I do, if I see a situation that scares me, I talk to them.  As flight instructors we should all consider it our sacred duty to do so.

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Learning To Fly the Citation Mustang—Single Pilot

John and Martha take a break during shooting for “Flying the Citation Mustang—Single Pilot”.

You would think we would be over the thrill that comes with flying a new aircraft.  But the excitement Martha and I felt recently from learning to fly the Citation Mustang demonstrated that when it comes to flying, we still have the childlike enthusiasm of beginners.

To a pilot with a piston-powered background like us, there is no greater thrill than transitioning to a new jet.  To us, jets will always be special.  You are flooded with excitement and sensations—the thrill of hearing a jet engine wind up on engine start, so full of promise—the semi-sweet smell of jet fuel—the exhilaration of hearing jet engines follow you wherever you go—and the power, oh so much power and all at the command of your right hand.

Along with this excitement comes the pleasant discovery of new concepts, a new flight environment and elegant systems that provide a whole new level of comfort and safety.

The Citation Musting in Flight

Flying the Mustang near Page, AZ while shooting “Flying the Citation Mustang—Single Pilot”

As you know, many jets require two pilots, but the Citation Mustang is certificated to be flown single pilot.  It is a personal airplane, just the way a Cessna Corvalis or a Cirrus is a personal airplane.  It is a jet that evokes dreams of the freedom of getting in whenever you want and jetting off into the blue.

Before you can fulfill that dream, you have to demonstrate the ability to fly single pilot by taking a checkride and earning the C510S type rating. It would seem that should be slam-dunk for us—we have been flying jets for over 24 years.  But getting that single-pilot type rating wasn’t all that easy for us.  Our jet flying has always been in a two-crew environment.  We have shared the workload and always had someone to look out for our mistakes.

Martha and I each rode along in the right seat of the simulator while the other was in the left, but since we were going for our single pilot ratings, we weren’t supposed to help out the other pilot.  For me of course, sitting in the right seat and keeping my mouth shut was probably the hardest part of the training.

As when flying any aircraft single-pilot IFR, the challenge is to use periods when you are not busy, to get ahead of things to relieve the workload during periods when you will be busy—all the while using all your resources to maintain situational awareness.

The G1000 and the GFC-700 autopilot in the Mustang are fabulous tools for doing all of that.  But it really pays to be sharp at using the G1000.  (King Schools’ course on the G1000 can be a great help here.  It includes a built-in procedures trainer.)


Citation Mustang Cockpit

Inside the Citation Mustang glass cockpit, featuring the Garmin G1000

The other thing that can help out a lot is knowing how jets behave compared to piston aircraft.  Among other things, the throttle response is different and you don’t have the benefit of propellers to create instant lift or drag when you need them.  (You might want to take a look at King Schools’ Jet Transition Course.)

Martha gets her Citation Mustang single-pilot type rating!

Martha gets her Citation Mustang single-pilot type rating!

In our opinion, if you are dreaming of flying your own jet, you should get your type rating first.  Martha and I have gotten great pleasure from learning to fly each jet we have flown, and confirmed in two cases that we did want to buy the aircraft…and in another case decided we did not want to buy the aircraft.

By the way, you’ll want to know that we are finishing up the production of our new course, “Flying the Citation Mustang—Single Pilot.” It leverages our own recent learning experience and will make your dream of flying a jet even more vivid.

UPDATE: We just posted a video preview of our upcoming course on flying the Citation Mustang.

UPDATE: Flying the Citation Mustang—Single Pilot course is now available for purchase here.

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35 years of sharing our passion with pilots and having fun

John and Martha in Alaska You have to wonder what our 35th anniversary means to you. We think the answer can be summed up in the words, “clear, simple and fun”. It all started with our flying our own airplane around the country teaching weekend ground schools for 10 years (more about that here). During those years we stood face-to-face with over 10 thousand pilots and watched their reactions as we made our explanations. In those days we got the test results from the FAA for each class. We desperately wanted to do our very best for these pilots, and seeing their reactions and getting immediate feedback was the perfect formula for refining our teaching.

When it came time to go to video we and our students benefited from these years of refinement and our customer’s results were fantastic. To this day we provide a method for our customers to give us feedback in every course they take. We think that despite all the changes in the technology of how our customers learn (we have gone from chalkboards to overheads, to video tape, to DVD’s for TV, to computer discs, and now the Internet and mobile devices), the key for our customers is that we are constantly striving to make learning clear, simple and fun. We believe you benefit from this whether your next goal is a Sport Pilot Certificate or you are qualifying for high-altitude transatlantic flying. We think this is a large part of the reason we have had a hand in training over half the pilots flying today.

Part of the fun of the last 35 years has been our sweepstakes. (The call to the winner is always great fun!) We have given away over 2 million dollars worth of prizes to lucky winners. The odds of winning are pretty good (about 100,000 to 1) and for our winners, the prizes have fulfilled many dreams. For King Schools’ 35th Anniversary, we put together a very special package of 3 prizes that we believe will continue this tradition in great style.

During our traveling ground school years, Alaska gained a special place in our hearts. We have made over 50 round-trips there from San Diego in our own airplane. We also flew around Alaska a lot in our own airplane and in various other airplanes including a Cessna 185 Skywagon, on both wheels and floats. As part of our 35th Anniversary Sweepstakes, we think it is very fitting that we are giving away an Alaskan seaplane rating and bush flying vacation to a lucky pilot that will put them in touch with that amazing experience. Equally exciting, the winner will also receive a state-of-the-art Redbird TD simulator, plus a KING Get It All Kit of their choice. See pages 36-37 in our Summer/Fall 2010 catalog for all the details!  Don’t have a catalog?  Let us know you want one and we’ll be happy to send one to you, free of charge.

Keep on having fun flying—and learning,

GPS and Avionics: How We Got Here Depends on How We Used to Get Here

When Martha and I first started flying together, over 40 years ago, GPS for General Aviation wasn’t even on the drawing board and glass cockpits were just planes with lots of windows…

We just finished a major upgrade to our course on the Garmin G1000, version 8 (Flying the Garmin G1000). We’re excited about how the course turned out, especially the integrated procedures trainer (no need to sit in your plane to learn your G1000). But while we were teaching mastery of the 125 knobs and buttons on the G1000, we found ourselves appreciating the wonderful tools available to today’s pilots.

Recently, we have been flying the C162 Skycatcher, making video for a new Cessna course (YouTube: First Skycatcher flies to King Schools).  Even that wonderful light sport aircraft has a glass cockpit, and we love flying with the G1000 in our Cessna 172SP (the sweepstakes plane we’re giving away in January!).  Even our super-old Falcon 10 has glass in it, since it was updated to have EFIS and an MFD some time back.

Occasionally, when we take a “round dial” airplane up, we are reminded just how much things have changed. So we thought we’d take a moment and fly through the waypoints of civilian aviation navigation history. Let’s see how this technology came together to enable GPS, the foundations of avionics, and the G1000 in particular:

Departure: ca 1761

Some say the best place to start is at the beginning. So, to see where it all began, we’ll jump back to 1761 when the chronometer combined with the compass and the sextant to give mariners complete open-sea navigation. This was about as low-tech as you could get, yet using a number of stable reference points provided by nature (stars and time), travelers could triangulate their location across the expanse of the seas. As much as technology has evolved, we find that even the most sophisticated navigation system shares traits with this earliest approach.

The earliest set of navigation instruments used star position and time to determine position

The earliest set of navigation instruments used star position and time to determine position

Beacons Beckon – Keeping the Home Fires Lit

Fast forward to 1919, when pilots decide to make their own “transmitting” navigational aids—bonfires. Pilots found this simple approach could be used for visual reference flight at night.  Later, these were replaced with light beacons.  Still no real tools or electronics required; just good pilotage and dead-reckoning.

By 1929, the first four-course radio range went into service.  This was a real electronic breakthrough for flight.  Twin towers emitted alternating signals that converged to a steady tone when you were “on the beam”.    The technology was widely used during WWII.  It was a great navaid if you wanted to be “on the beam”.  Anywhere else and you were “on your own” with your gyroscope and altimeter.

Sometimes Delays are a Good Thing!

LORAN Station from the Aleutian Island Chain, ca 1943

LORAN Station from the Aleutian Island Chain, ca 1943

It took 10 years before the next historical waypoint to GPS navigation would come along.  It was the war-time development of LOng RAnge Navigation, or LORAN.  This 1940’s system introduced the concept of measuring the time-delay of a signal traveling to a receiver to calculate position—still used in today’s GPS.  Whereas the four-course radio range told you where you should be, LORAN told you where you were.  Knowing where you were as well as where you wanted to go was a big step.

Around the same time that LORAN started, the first Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) radio was used for scheduled airline navigation.

By the 1950’s VHF Omnidirectional Radio Range (VOR) was widely available for US navigation.  Like the four-course radio range, VOR used two transmitters.  But in VOR, the first signal broadcasts an omnidirectional reference signal and the second signal rotates a line-of-sight beam, much like a lighthouse.  This second signal goes 180 degrees out of phase when it rotates 180 degrees from magnetic North.  

When this second signal sweeps the plane, the receiver calculates the phase difference of the two signals and uses this to determine the plane’s current radial from the VOR station. With two VORs, the aircraft’s position can be fixed over the ground.

Alternatively, Distance Measuring Equipment (DME) was added to many VOR stations.  It was based on WWII Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) systems and used relayed pulse signals and measurement of time delay (remember 1940’s LORAN?) to determine the distance (slant range) to the ground station. Eventually, enough of these VOR stations were linked together to form over 45,000 miles of air highways, or “Victor airways”.

In the 1960’s, we entered the era of solid state and the VOR’s were upgraded to this new, more reliable circuitry.  At the same time, these ground stations took over the duties of their older four-course radio range ancestors and extended “Victor airways” and “jet routes” worldwide.

Navigation Takes it Up a Notch—Way Up

Up ‘til now, much of the groundwork for electronic navigation was already in place.  But the key word here is “groundwork”. That’s because no satellites were used yet and beacons were stationary.  That changed in 1964, when the military navigation satellite constellation known as TRANSIT or the Navy Navigation Satellite System (NAVSAT), became operational. 

Satellite for the TRANSIT system, also known as NAVSTAR

Satellite for the TRANSIT system, also known as NAVSTAR

This first Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) exploited a discovery made after the Sputnik launch in 1957, when folks realized that the Doppler shift of a moving spacecraft’s (satellite’s) radio signal could be used to determine the location of a receiver on Earth. Satellite navigation was an amazing feat.  Still, for us pilots, there was a serious trade-off.  Although its range covered the entire Earth with 200m accuracy, hourly updates were the most it could deliver–a win for ships, but not too useful for planes.  And since it was military use only, even that point was moot.  At least satellites were now on the stage.

The Birth of Avionics

For avionics, 1968 was a banner year.  Components in the aircraft of the day each had their own dedicated wiring and connections.   With the advent of many new devices, things under the hood were getting pretty complicated.  This is when the military’s idea of a “multiplexed avionics data bus” first surfaced, an idea not too different from today’s USB port. The thought was that if you could take the data from each component, tag it with an “address”, then send all the data down a single wire to be sorted on the other end, you could eliminate lots of wires, connections and weight.  That year, an F-15 was tested with such a platform and out of this came Mil-Std-1533B.  This was the interface standard that would shape the future avionics, making them more reliable, lighter and cheaper.

It’s the 70’s.  And while folks were starting to try on clothes made of  new “synthetic fabric”, the military was working to synthesize flight information.  To date, most flight systems were individual mechanical, electric or magnetic components, with radio being the most sophisticated thing on board.  Wanting more “intel”, the military set out to integrate various types of new sensors into aircraft, with the goal of tying this information together using “aviation electronics” or “avionics”, a  buzz word we still use today.

The military was also beginning to build out GPS.  The first of dozens of satellites to follow launched in 1976.

This NASA 737 cockpit shows the co-pilot's position upgraded to electronic flight displays.  The pilot side was not yet modified.  ca 1974

This NASA 737 cockpit shows the co-pilot's position upgraded to monochromatic electronic flight displays. The pilot side was not yet modified. ca 1974

NASA was busy, too.  Recognizing how complex transport aircraft had become—with more than a hundred cockpit instruments and controls—NASA sought to develop a way for pilots to display “situational awareness”.  The result?  The first full glass cockpit demonstrator.  It was a rousing success and the commercial industry quickly adopted the concept, with the MD-80 first to roll out “glass” in 1979.  Other commercial planes were soon to follow.

Around that same time, the ground-based Omega very low frequency worldwide navaid was being used by the airlines.  It could be considered a very low frequency version of LORAN.  Although it had 1-2 mile accuracy, those who could afford it could supplement it with expensive self-contained Inertial Navigation Systems (INS)—think big gyroscope coupled with an ability to track every change in position from a pilot-entered starting point.

So, now, we have a proven satellite navigation system (still military) and a glass cockpit (still commercial).  We just need to put the two together and make it available and cheap enough for General Aviation!

The ball would be set rolling by a tragic event in 1983.  Due to the inaccuracies of current commercial navigation systems, Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was shot down when it unknowingly wandered into USSR airspace.  President Reagan responded by issuing a directive to open up GPS development for civilian purposes.

GPS Goes Up, Civil Avionics Speeds Up

In 1987, the first glass cockpit went into non-airline service.  Gulfstream had taken a big chance and bet on a cockpit whose dials were “drawn” by cathode-ray tubes.  The bet paid off and the Gulfstream IV business jet set a new standard in civil aviation.

The Gulfstream delivers the first General Aviation craft delivered with a glass cockpit

Gulfstream delivers the first General Aviation craft delivered with a glass cockpit

At this time, GPS was not yet ready for use, yet several parallel developments were based in it.  Among these was the successful project in 1991 that interfaced the first portable/panel mounted GPS with autopilot.

In the beginning of 1994, the 24th GPS satellite was placed into in orbit, completing the constellation.  By early 1995, the new GPS system, called NAVSTAR was declared fully operational. Now, just like the earliest mariners, travelers could look to the “stars” for guidance.

GA Gets a Constellation Prize

In 1996, President Clinton, recognizing the importance of GPS to civilian users, declared it a dual-use national asset.  At this time, in the interest of security, only a Selective Availability (SA) signal was made available to civilians.  SA effectively increased positional error, but GPS receivers were now approved for IFR!  The military also made GPS their primary system and decommissioned their TRANSIT system. 

In 1998, Vice President Gore commissioned the upgrade of GPS to provide two additional civilian signals enhancing accuracy and reliability for aviation use.  Two years later, Selective Availability was removed, instantly improving civilian GPS precision.  Within 10 years, 31 GPS satellites would be in orbit, providing redundancy and precision to 15 meters.  Why not better than 15 meters?  We’ll get to that in a moment.

Crystal Glass

Let’s catch up on the glass cockpit.  By the end of the decade and with the help of mass-marketed PC’s and TV’s to drive costs down, the vibrant color, reliability and low power requirements of Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) screens had replaced cathode-ray tube displays.  Today’s familiar full-color screens became available at a cost we GA pilots could finally affordafford, GPS and all!

Final Approach…

That brings us back to where we started, which is today’s Glass Cockpit.  So, here’s a review of the events or “waypoints” that got us here:

Historic events that enabled GPS for GA

  • The earlier mariners looked to space for their navigation
  • The 1919 bonfires showed us that we can “transmit” waypoints
  • In 1929, we learned that radio signals could establish navigation paths
  • In 1940’s LORAN, we learned that signal transit times could be used for triangulating position
  • In 1957 Sputnik showed us that satellites could be used for navigation
  • In 1994 the 24th GPS satellite completed the constellation
  • In 1996 President Clinton made GPS available to General Aviation

Historic events that enabled the Glass Cockpit for GA

  • In 1968, the idea of a “digital data bus” made way for lighter, cheaper and more reliable avionics systems
  • In the 1970’s the military adds new sensors to aircraft and integrates the results
  • At the same time, NASA demonstrates the first all-glass cathode-ray cockpit
  • In 1987, the first GA Glass Cockpit goes into service
  • In the late 90’s, LCD screen production for PC’s and TV’s lowers the production cost for LCD-based cockpit screen.

GPS in the Nutshell

Since we’re here, let’s take a closer look at how GPS works for us pilots.  Then we’ll circle back to the finish what we started on—the G1000. 

GPS receivers use the constantly emitting GPS satellite signals that all the satellites send in unison.  Based on the time it takes to receive three satellite’s signals and the Doppler Effect of each signal, a series of computer calculations can narrow the position of your receiver to one of two places—a point close to Earth and a point far into space.  It’s a reasonable assumption (we hope) that you are not in space, so the computer can always pick the point closest to Earth.  From this, your position relative to ground can then be determined.

How GPS Locates you

But believe it or not, the speed of light causes some trouble for us here.  It is used in the calculations and since the satellite signals travel for only an extremely short duration, (micro-seconds) GPS is very sensitive to the accuracy of your GPS receiver’s clock.  To address this, you simply need to have a really, really expensive atomic clock on board, right?

We know that the cost of GPS has come way down, so we couldn’t possibly have an atomic clock in our receiver.  The receiver manufacturers must have done something, right?  What did the manufacturers do?  Actually, some very cleaver folks realized that if they used a fourth satellite, they could check where the first three satellites say you are, then compare this to the distance to the 4th satellite—four equations (4 satellites) for four unknowns (x,y,z,time).  Since the satellites all have atomic clocks, any discrepancy would be due to error in your clock.  The good news is that this can be used to compensate your system and provide you with accurate (and inexpensive) position results down to 15 meters!  Amazing!

Why not better than 15 meters?  Because GPS uses signal timing to determine position and although we figured out the expensive clock issue, there was another troublemaker lurking in our atmosphere.  Apparently, when the ionosphere “billows”, it slows down the GPS signals, throwing off our readings.  Once again, cleaver folks stepped in to figure this out and with a few more ground stations and satellites, came up with the Wide Area Augmentation System or WAAS.

WAAS first became available to General Aviation in 2003.  Using what’s called Differential GPS, its sole job is to tell your receiver how to compensate for changes in the atmosphere.  If you have equipment that supports WAAS, then you can count on accuracy down to 3 meters.  Sounds almost good enough to use for automated landings, but that’s LAAS and that’s another story!

It’s been a long journey through history.  We hope you’ve enjoyed your flight.

We started this blog by talking about our updated G1000 version 8 course, which lead to looking at the historical breakthroughs that made GPS and avionics possible.  The exciting part is that this is just the start.  Within the GPS and avionics framework, so many other navaids became possible.  For the G1000, it is things like:

  • Moving map display
  • Flight Director and Autopilot
  • Vertical Navigation
  • Terrain display and warning
  • Real-time weather overlays
  • 3D Virtual Reality landscape
  • Traffic Information Services (TIS) alerts
  • Wide Area Augmentation Service (WAAS)

And these merely scratch the surface of what the Garmin G1000 can do.  Like most avionics today, it only helps if you know how to use it!  We think you’ll agree that GA cockpits have come a long way and we like where they’ve landed.

All We Want Is To Be Left Alone – But Congress Won’t Give Us That Choice

Most operators of general aviation airplanes use their planes for business, and the flexibility and freedom our airplane gives us is an important part of our business—and our lives.

Even so, most of us never give any thought to supporting business aviation politically. We rely on organizations like NBAA to carry our water for us. That’s what they do. And I might add that they do it very well and very professionally. Most of us just want to run our businesses and leave the government to NBAA. All we want from the government is to be left alone. We are a self-reliant group.

“If we want to keep things the same,
we’re going to have to make some changes.”

The problem is that government isn’t going to leave us alone. Business aviation is taking it on the chin in Congress and in the sphere of public opinion. If we want to keep things the same, we’re going to have to make some changes.

As good as NBAA is, and they are the best there is—we couldn’t have better representation than them—they can’t do it without us.

The problem is that they are professionals, and they are seen that way by members of Congress and their staff. When a member of the aviation community speaks up, they have much more authenticity.

NBAA-LogoOK, so what do I want you to do? Well first of all, if you use your airplane for business, and you haven’t already done so, you should join NBAA. You may think NBAA is just for the big operators with multiple big jet airplanes. That’s exactly what those in Congress who oppose business aviation would like you to think. They want to divide and conquer. NBAA strongly supports all business aviation, and they need our support.

Then I think you should go to the NBAA Convention in Orlando October 20th through 22nd, to learn more about the issues. They have a track for business operators with only one or two aircraft, from pistons up through light jets.


They’ll have all these airplanes on display.

They’ll have seminars on subjects like:

  • Contract jet fuel programs that can save us up to 50 cents per gallon on nearly every purchase
  • How to save money and hassles through good tax planning for your airplane
  • How using the internet and mobile technology can make it much easier to plan our trips, file our flight plans, and know in advance the clearance ATC plans to give us


Plus, Martha and I will do a seminar on stepping up to jets. We’ll tell folks the things that we wish we had been told before we made that big step—including the big-time and expensive maintenance surprises that were in store for us.

Finally, when you are needed, step up to the plate and tell your Congressman, Senators, and local politicians the reality about issues involving business aviation.

Folks, please join us in Orlando October 20th through 22nd. You’ll be glad you did.

We’ll see you there.

Related Links

Flying Walter Cronkite

walter-cronkiteThe recent passing of Walter Cronkite made me especially sad.

As a little boy I watched him on our black and white TV as he told me “The Way It Was” about World War II.  Then when I was a young man, I listened as Walter told the nation we would have to negotiate our way out of the Vietnam War.  He was a factor in all of our lives during those years.

So when a flying buddy who also happened to be a reporter at CNN asked if we could fly Walter Cronkite from New York to Merritt Island, Florida in our Citation, the answer was an unhesitating yes.  John Glenn was going into space for the second time and Walter and another flying buddy of ours, Miles O’Brien, were to co-anchor the coverage for CNN.  The problem was that Walter was to receive an award from the United Nations the night before.  And the only way to get to Cape Kennedy in time was by private airplane.  Walter would be comfortable in our relatively small airplane, our old Citation—his wife, Betsy, had learned to fly and Walter himself had taken flying lessons.  So it was John and Martha to the rescue.

Martha was to be the captain and I was to be elevated to my obvious level of incompetence as co-pilot.  The route that ATC gave us between La Guardia airport and Merritt Island airport was incredibly complicated.  We put the first few legs into the GPS and planned to fill the rest in after we got airborne.

Martha and I had a habit of putting our charts on the floor between the two pilot seats, but they did have the occasional tendency to slide backwards when we pitched up for a steep climb.  This time when we rotated for take-off, every chart we had slid clear to the back of the airplane and landed between Walter’s two feet.  As the lowly co-pilot it was my job to unbuckle and go back and retrieve the charts.  As I embarrassedly reached down between Walter’s feet to retrieve the charts, he gave me one of the basic truths of navigation, “Aw, just fly south.”  Walter had it perfectly right, but I was pretty sure that was not the way New York Center would feel about it.

As an old sailor, Walter had the essence.  Just hold your heading.  If only I could have had him tell New York Center, “That’s the Way It Was.”

Air Force One – Take Two

Wow! What a reaction you gave us to our first few posts! The comments and feedback we’ve received are wonderful, challenging, and sincere. Keep it coming.

Based on that feedback, we wanted to clarify one point of our “Air Force One and the Statue of Liberty” post. The Air Force pilots who properly executed their orders to fly over the Statue of Liberty don’t deserve to be called “Aviation Klutzes”.  Although the pilot in command was the final authority as to the operation of the aircraft, and had the last clear chance to stop the operation, the decision was, we are sure, made further up the chain of command.

The title of “Aviation Klutz” only applies to someone who is responsible for making good aviation decisions, but fails to be adequately thoughtful and takes action at the needless expense of others.

We general aviation pilots aren’t subject to a chain of command. We must develop our own situational awareness and think through the impact on others for each action we take.