A story from Corpus Christi

Published 2:09 pm Saturday, November 24, 2012

by James D. Howell

Dit..da, dit..da, dit..da, da dit da dit, dit da dit, dit da da dit, dit..da, dit..da.

I press the headphones tighter against my ears. I’m off course in the alpha quadrant of the Corpus Christi radio range navigational facility. The next question is — which quadrant?

Okay, if I turn the volume really low and take up the calculated course and the volume increases, I’m headed toward the station; if it decreases, I’m headed away from the station. It’s called a fade 90 orientation and is a part of my instrument licensing airborne exam.

I’m flying in a twin engine, twin tail, conventional landing gear, Beechcraft SNB (Navy designation). It has a lot of colorful names in Navy slang. I will not learn to take off and land this aircraft.

I will learn to use electronic systems to navigate the aircraft from point “A” to point “B” and place the aircraft in a position from which a landing can be made. Apparently the Navy thinks time spent learning to take off and land is wasted on a transient. The final result of this part of the training cycle is to acquire an “Instrument Rating.” All Navy pilots are instrument rated.

Ground school in Corpus Christi is all about navigation. We start with radio systems and end with celestial navigation.

I learn the same procedures that post World War II pilots used to airlift supplies to Berlin. It is less than 10 years since that legendary cargo operation fed, clothed and fueled West Berlin’s people.

Pilots “flew the beam” to navigate to and land at West Berlin’s airports. Departure and landing patterns were planned around the ability of aircraft to be separated by time, altitude, and horizontal distance, all monitored on the ground and in the air electronically.

The “new” radar gains importance, and newer radios, not dramatically affected by weather, are being developed and installed throughout the United States and other countries. Last year Russia launched Sputnik, the world’s first earth satellite; it seems the Cold War has heated up into a technology race.

I am on the cusp of change. I learn older navigation procedures as well as the newer technologies. I even learn how to navigate using commercial broadcast stations. The newer navigation radios are Ultra High Frequency and have relatively little interference from weather; they’re static free, for the most part.

Distance Measuring Equipment is just starting for fleet use; so I’m really learning some technology that I’ll probably never use in the fleet. That matters not; what matters is I can do it.

I also know many places on earth are not as current as the United States, and I’ll use the older technology in ways that I don’t know about just yet.

A change that I, and my fellow students, like is a bit less technical. Navigation radios traditionally have their identifiers in Morse Code; it’s part of procedures to listen to that identifier to make sure it’s the desired station.

Some airway stations now have a recorded woman’s voice along with the Morse Code. It causes a grin when we tune in and listen up. Women’s voices are clearer than men’s on voice broadcasts. I like progress.

I also learn the newer, Very High Frequency technology. It’s genuine pleasure not having to fight with thunderstorms for control of navigational radios. VHF navigational radios are steady and reliable; newer cockpit instruments present flight paths in a more understandable format. I’ll have to wait a few years for this technology to be available worldwide.

Low frequency airway navigation stations are the standard throughout the United States. I learn to use Automatic Direction Finding for tracking along established air routes and instrument approaches to a variety of airports.

I learn to accomplish the same things using Manual Direction Finding for those cases when the auto feature is inoperative. There seems to be some sort of back up, or secondary method of getting an aircraft into position for landing under widely varying conditions.

I like the idea of having alternatives; it will stand me in good stead in future years. It is ingrained in my spirit and carved on the tree of my life. Flexibility is a valuable part of who I am. Intransigence in aviation can end badly; intransigence in my life can be just as disastrous.

I look to the sky as a resource for entertainment as well as work. I love what I’m doing and look forward to each new phase. Instrument Rating in hand, I move on to more distant horizons with another aircraft, another step in this wondrous journey.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at archiepix@kingwoodcable.com.