Recently, I ran a survey asking pilots about the flight training books they had read and what they would like to see in future books. Interestingly, one of the most common remarks was that new books should focus only on new technology such as GPS and glass cockpits. Some individuals specifically indicated that Non-Directional Beacons (NDBs) should be left out. This seems to echo the general belief of many new flight students, who find themselves entering this rapidly evolving world. But should we really cast away everything that seems old or less than perfect? Perhaps not yet.
There are still several good reasons to learn the ways of old and focus, not on learning the latest and greatest technology, but gaining a comprehensive skill set. For instance, an understanding of VORs and NDBs helps to understand new equipment like the G1000, which still incorporates parts of the old systems. Also, many older aircraft are still flying, and substantial parts of the world have yet to catch up with technological advances in the United States.
Understanding older features of the nation’s air navigation system are critical to understanding modern navigation. Global positioning systems (GPS) are great tools but they are not entirely new. Many of the features of today’s GPS units rely on concepts originally designed for ground based navigation. The first GPS approaches were simply converted VOR and NBD approaches with the same initial, final and missed approach segments. Even stand-alone GPS approaches take a cue from the old days, using existing holding pattern concepts to form procedure turns. Furthermore, the OBS function on any modern GPS works exactly like a traditional VOR. While GPS has many new features, some are not so unique, and a basic understanding of the older system will greatly improve understanding of the new systems.
Moreover, there is no guarantee that a pilot entering the work force today will be working with the newest and best technology. Airlines retain aircraft for long periods of time and face great difficulties in upgrading systems. As a result, many regional and some mainline aircraft lack glass cockpits, and in some cases even GPS. My first airline job began in 2008 in turbo-props with conventional instruments, some without GPS. While most pilots dream of flying large, glass cockpit aircraft it may be necessary to fly other aircraft along the career path, and lacking those skills will leave new pilots at a serious disadvantage.
For years, one of the most well-known fixtures of the national airspace system was Non-Directional Beacons (NDBs.) While many students would like to see these go away, the reality is that they will be around for a long time in the United States, and even longer in other countries. The reason is simple; they are cheap to install, cheap to maintain and very reliable. My flying job in the Caribbean often included NDB holds and approaches, in actual instrument condition. That was only a few years ago and little in the islands has changed since then. Many nations simply do not have the funds to pay for luxuries such as VORs, radar and runway lighting – things we take for granted in the U.S. Because of the international nature of aviation, pilots should be ready for a wide range of flying environments. Even regional pilots now fly from the continental U.S. direct to Mexico, the Bahamas and the Caribbean islands.
It may not be necessary to learn everything going back to the days of lighted airways and the four-course radial range, but true knowledge of where we are today requires some understanding of the past. In the competitive field of aviation, it would be a mistake to ignore learning opportunities simply because older technology is not the most fashionable. Ultimately, those who broaden their knowledge and experience will be the most successful in aviation and have the best career opportunities, no matter what they fly or where they fly it.