Old School Navigation: DIY Visual Approach Charts

In the olden days before the advent of moving map GPS but following the bad old days of the four course, navigation was a mix of pilotage, NDB and VOR tracking. The aircraft I’ve flown recently all have either a large GPS, a glass panel or a combination of both. That doesn’t mean that I always use them as a primary means of getting around. Call me crazy, but looking out the window is a lot more fun than staring at a screen.

I was fortunate to have instructors in my formative years who were old school navigators. They knew how to use GPS like wizards but wouldn’t let me use it until I had figured out how to read a map. After all, the map on the GPS is a repeater of sectionals and enroute charts that pilots used to carry before the iPad was invented. Knowing how to read one means knowing how to read the other. I was taught to look for checkpoints that were not directly under me (or at least offset myself by a 1/2 mile so I could see something prominent), not to draw a course line from the middle of an airport to the middle of another (unless you make a Dutch F-16 style takeoff, or fly out of ADS, not many people turn on course by midfield) and most of all, to verify the correct checkpoint by referencing it with another landmark.

One problem I had in parts of NJ and PA was finding certain airports. I knew where they were based on planning, they just had a pesky tendency to be hidden by trees and hills. We never flew much above 3000 MSL for the obvious airspace reasons, thus my limited line of sight in some areas meant that a few airports didn’t reveal themselves until the last second (at least on the first trip to a new field). Annoyed by this, I started drawing my own visual approach charts and still do to this day. It’s fun and gives you something to work with when flying into an unfamiliar field.

This technique works really well in densely populated areas also, day or night. Usually the airport is the dimmest set of lights out there and it’s hard to resist the urge to focus on a shopping center or highway just beyond the rotating beacon. For the approach into ADS from the north, an easy way to get in is to be north of the Sam Rayburn Tollway and the Dallas North Tollway intersection when you call up Regional Approach. At the southeast corner of this massive intersection is the huge headquarters of Hewlett Packard which actually is a charted VFR checkpoint (formerly Electronic Data Systems, hence the EDS on the chart). Follow the Tollway south and when you pass the next spaghetti-bowl intersection of the George Bush Tollway and the Dallas North Tollway, you are 2.7nm from ADS. Chances are unless you’ve been there before, you won’t see the airport but may see the beacon (it is literally in the middle of a city). Just keep following the Dallas North Tollway. Whoever built it must have been a pilot because at the 45 degree pattern entry point, it turns to you guessed it…a perfect downwind leg for Runway 33. Look to your right and you’ll see the airport if you’re at pattern altitude.

The Addison “Tollway Visual Rwy 33” sets you up for a right downwind entry.

Satellite terrain view of the densely populated North Dallas area and how congested the boundary of Addison is.

Getting back to 47N at night after returning from Long Island was made simple by using a natural landmark. I followed the Raritan River until it literally dumped me out on extended final for Runway 25. Starting You’ll pass over a wide freeway bridge, the NJ Turnpike/I-95. When you pass this bridge, a quick look to your left (south) should reveal the 2 Tower Center, which is as you probably guessed, two tall office buildings. Due west of I-95 is the Rt 1 bridge, followed soon thereafter by a series of highway bridges and a railroad viaduct linking New Brunswick to Highland Park. On the north side of the river at this point is the Rutgers football stadium that occasionally has a TFR but if there are no lights on, there shouldn’t be any issues (NOTAMS or a quick call to NY Approach keeps your conscience clear). Keep going and you’ll see I-287 making an “L” in front of you (and crossing the river). Just after this, the river will curve to the left, you’ll cross I-287 again and when the water becomes difficult to see, look up and you’ll see Runway 25 directly in front of you.

River Visual for Central Jersey Regional Rwy 25.

Satellite terrain map view of approach into Central Jersey Regional showing how the river narrows as the airport is reached.

Nearby 47N is SMQ, which is from some angles hidden by trees. Follow I-287 to the north and when you are parallel to the large Aventis Pharmaceutical facility on the right, look to your left and the airport will be there. If you happen to miss it from this angle, continue north until reaching the juncture of I-287 and I-78. Turn west to follow I-78 and look to your left again. The airport is in the southwest corner of this juncture less than a mile from your position.

Somerset Airport visual approach following I-287 with multiple reference points.

Wider view of the “inital” fix into SMQ.

Going to Newport State, RI? From the west, follow the Jamestown Bridge that crosses Narragansett Bay. When the highway bends sharply to the south, continue to the east. Cross the bay, pass over the Newport Naval Complex and cross highway 114 (north-south orientation) and you’ll be midfield for UUU.

Newport State Bridge approach. Note obstructions on the Newport segment of the bridge.

Wide view of approach over Narragansett Bay and the Naval Facility.

These are just a few of my personal examples and I’m sure you have your own for fields you fly into. The advent of satellite maps online has made it easier to cross-reference ahead of time what the terrain looks like rather than looking at yellow vs tan vs brown on a sectional. Plus the ability to see what buildings are near your destination airport is a vast improvement over trying to guess which warehouse or mall to look for while airborne. While I would rather fly with a moving map as a bright and shiny cross-reference, I have no issues going without one. Planning makes all the difference in being where you want to be vs someplace else. Happy navigating.

Glass Cockpit Blues

The Square Elephant In The Cockpit

Original Date: June 3, 2009

I was observing on an instrument proficiency check in a Cessna 205 and noticed some things that really did stand out. The pilot undergoing the check was highly competent and ran very thorough checklists for all phases of flight. His VOR and ILS approaches were smooth and safe with limited deflection shown on the CDI that he corrected quickly. However the one instrument in the cockpit that caused the most trouble was the GPS. The instructor asked to see a GPS approach in Orange County. The PIC started pushing buttons to enter approach mode on the receiver. And the GPS promptly decided to ignore his request and do something else, like try to enter an approach for a VOR in the area (which to its credit, it gave a message saying “This is not an airport.”).

So the PIC said lets try a different airport, like Lincoln Park. The instructor said okay, enter the approach and fly the procedure. Again the same flurry of typing and head scratching ensued. By now the instructor is fiddling with the unit and flipping through operation checklists to see if there were any shortcuts to getting it to switch modes. After about 5 minutes he proclaims victory over the beast in the black box and then asks the PIC to enter the approach. The PIC tried several times but each time hit a key that ruined the string of info just entered. That or the wrong option was selected, giving us a flight plan to Aviano. All the while, I’m scanning for traffic and telling the potential student in the back seat next to me that flying is actually fairly easy, but operating the avionics is the thing that makes aces feel like aceholes.

We headed south back to Central Jersey Regional and by this time the PIC had figured out a way to get the GPS to accept the approach mode and left the flight plan mode alone for good. He flew a perfect GPS approach to runway 7, broke off and made a ridiculously soft landing. One of those landings where you have to remind the wheels that they’re supposed to start turning because we are in fact on the ground. After the flight, I talked to the potential student about the joys of general aviation, while the instructor spoke to the PIC about the flight. It was painfully clear that while GPS is a great tool (the map mode would have kept us from guessing where NYC’s class B began in case we couldn’t see ground references, but in that case you should be IFR anyway so it’s a moot point) and it can help you fly more efficiently.

However, if you are not completely comfortable using all modes of the GPS, you’re only getting a fraction of the benefit. Even more importantly, with your head down staring at the various modes on your receiver, you’re distracted from the primary task of flying the airplane. Granted this airplane had an autopilot and it had been used earlier, but the instructor wanted to see the PIC hand fly. The PIC got off heading and altitude far more often when messing with the unit than when he was just scanning the horizon. Granted, a person with an impeccable scan will be able to divide their attention perfectly, but the fact remains that you need to know exactly where the electrons are going before you start the engine.

What's it doing now? Direct ZELEN? I don't even know who ZELEN is!

If your GPS has home training software, use it. Don’t just hit the Direct button and stare at the map. That’s a waste of many thousands of dollars of capability. Practice going to a certain airport and then switching to an alternate. Know how the map orients itself and how to zoom in and out. If your GPS can output commands to an autopilot, do some local practice flights with it engaged in good weather. Basically using the full capability of any avionics needs to be second nature. Just as you can spin the numbers on the transponder without a second thought, so must be the operation of any nav gear.

In closing, a word to any avionics manufacturer who may be reading this (hey you never know). Please make your avionics big enough to use without having to train our fingers how to lock onto the right button while bouncing around in turbulence. Yes, panel space is always an issue but most owners would welcome a large knob that does the same thing in all pages (i.e. scan, change letters, change mode, etc), or large buttons that are spaced so that the bouncing finger doesn’t hit the wrong one. Yes, the “spider crawl” method does work but it freaks out passengers. Other than that one issue, I love the color maps and built in nav/coms. Anything to make the average Piper more like an A320….except for the J-3 Cub.
Let’s leave that one simple.