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Wednesday, April 20, 2005

I was thinking during a flight the other day, as I watched the little airplane that represented my position over the planet earth, skimming over the towns, roads and other conveniently-identified objects on the GPS moving map, that navigation isn't as much fun as it once was. Pilots who have cut their teeth on VOR, Loran and now GPS navigation must find it hard to imagine finding their way across the country with only a map and a watch, and nothing to back up those humble aids. It can be done, and many of us who wouldn't dream of describing ourselves as 'Old Timers' have done it, for hours and hours and miles and miles.

My first airplane was a 65 horsepower Luscombe 8A, with no generator, starter, battery, lights and of course, no radio. After solo and before proper cross country training, I would follow the highways to wherever I wanted to go. Service stations gave away road maps in those days and my 'flight kit' contained those needed for my inappropriate wanderings.

What led to this now unthinkable situation was my sudden after-solo move from western West Virginia back to the central part of the state. At about 12 hours of total time in the air, I left the airport where I'd soloed the Luscome and moved to a small grass field near my home. I had cleverly avoided informing my instructor of my plans, since I knew there was no way he would approve me flying the airplane the 70 miles or so to the new field, at my current level (none) of experience. As far as the airport personal were concerned, I'd just disappeared along with the airplane

Arriving at the new airport I found there was virtually no activity, and also no instructor to supervise my solo work. I had fallen through an aeronautical crack. I now had an airplane, a place to keep it, enough knowledge to get it off the ground and back on again, and no one to tell me what I should be doing. Much worse, I had no one to tell me what I shouldn't be doing. I became every instructor's worst nightmare. I was a rogue student pilot.

I flew in this befuddled and dangerous state for a year or so with no accidents, but enough 'memorable flights' to fill a small book. After numerous scares so bad I found myself promising to take back things I never stole, I was fortunate enough to find an understanding instructor who dragged me from the underworld of aviation and into compliance with the FAR's and showed me how to fly without being a danger to all that lay below.

But much to my delight, my aeronautical social worker also taught me the wonderful art of navigation by map and clock. The roadmaps went back to the car, I invested the quarter that was then the cost of a sectional chart, and began to learn to understand it. As I grew familiar with the mapmaker's work, the symbols came alive and I found I could read it like a photograph. I spent hours at my kitchen table gazing at my new chart, as if it were the ground as seen from the cockpit of a high-flying airplane, imagining the flights I would take.

Finally I was ready. I bought more sectionals and happily employed my new plotter and E-6B computer and begin to plan and fly cross-countries. Short cross countries, long cross countries, cross countries to the sea shore, to Canada, cross countries to the North East, to the mountains, to the plains, and the Great Lakes. These trips took me to places I'd never been before, not because I had business there, but because I needed to have the airplane take me to the far distant lands that I'd only read about. The Luscombe was scratching the itch of wanderlust that I'd had since childhood, and sweeping me up and over, letting me see what lay beyond the far hills.

I spent the next five hundred flight hours in the little Luscombe, wandering the Eastern United States, seeing new places and meeting people that I still remember and in some cases still know. These days my pilotage skills have grown rusty and I navigate the easy way, with VOR and GPS, but I still remember the flights of a young pilot that followed a pencil line on a map to a new world.

Steve Weaver Aircraft Sales - Route 3 Box 696 - Phillipi, West Virginia - Phone 304-457-4523 - Fax 304-457-4799 For a restorative vacation for both your body and your soul, consider a week on the banks of the unforgettable Tygart River, in the heart of West Virginia. Click for more.

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