Navigating
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Navigation is an essential part of (vol bivouac) flying. It is about finding your way through an almost endless variety of choices, both good and bad. By thinking ahead and acting wisely when the need arises, the good choices tend to be more frequent than the bad ones. Thinking with a tired body, usually accompanied by a tired brain, is difficult and increases the risk of taking the wrong decisions. Try to avoid navigating difficult terrain when tired. The result could be worse than not navigating at all. Resting on the spot and rethinking your situation later on with a clearer mind, usually leads to better results.

Navigation starts with planning your trip, taking into account the terrain, the weather condition, as well as your own condition. Identifying problems that may lay ahead is a key element in good navigation. By virtualising eventual problems in advance, you are far more likely to have an adequate answer when running into them in real life later on. Be prepared to change your plan. Have different options available, in order not to get stuck or needing to improvise. I have nothing against improvisation, but ad hoc planning carries a high risk of overlooking important issues and jumping from one incident to the other. Having only one plan is not planning, but heading for trouble. No matter how hard you are trying to follow the course you have set, there is likely to be a moment when you have to deviate from your original intentions and use an alternative plan. One of those moments that reveal the difference between a true navigator, who keeps on finding his or her way, while the less skilled or less lucky ones get lost or desperate.

If you do not mind where you are going, your direction is not important.

I am using navigation for knowing where I am, rather than planning my flight. My goal is to enjoy the flight, rather than some fixed destination. Which means I nearly always arrive on goal, even when I am at two days hiking distance from an earthly target such as my car or a friend's home. That being said, the weather has a major influence on my flight plans. Bad weather arriving from the south usually means I will fly north, trying to stay ahead. A low cloud base makes me prefer a route along the lower mountains, rather than the taller ones that have their heads in the clouds. Before taking off, I run through the available options. Once in the air, I let the wind and the moment pick one of those options for me. Seeing a group of vultures heading north, my initial direction is likely to be north (trying to keep up with them). Even if the obvious route is south that day because of a mistral tendency.

No matter how perfect the plan, never mistake it for reality. Countless are the pilots who looked at the weather forecast, but did not adapt their flight plan when the weather turned out to be different. Sometimes pilots even fail to notice a weather change at all, let alone adapt to it. If the forecast did not mention thunderstorms today, then that dark could over there is a trick of light and not a thunderstorm. Right? A plan is nothing but a plan. Be ready to change it. Be ready to change your mind.

My dream of letting the wind carry me wherever I feel like going to, has one major problem: airspace restrictions. The most important reason for navigation during my flights is to keep out of restricted or dangerous zones such as a low level flight corridor (ressau basse altitude), AWY, ATM, CTR, military training ground, or nature reserve. There is quite some activity in the air (even if you don’t see it), and I would hate to run into a Mirage, Rafale, Tigre, Airbus, or obus. Not only because that is likely to hurt, but also because it could have severe consequences for our freedom to fly. Our freedom has already been restricted over the years. Too many incidents, such as near misses with passenger jets or landing in a shooting range, and we will simply be eliminated from the sky. Air traffic has increased considerably in comparison with the early days of free flight. In addition to that, the number and scale of military exercises has considerably increased during the last years (2010). An important reason why I started flying in the southern Alps is the relatively good weather (more reliable than further up north). It seems the military have finally discovered this little secret as well.

Keeping out of a restricted zone on the ground is not that difficult. Warning signs, (electrified) fences, walls, barbed wire, (armed) guards, check posts, alarms, watchtowers, searchlights, and guard dogs are just a few of the sign that tell you to keep out. I have not encountered any of these in the air yet, so you need to be able to stay out of trouble without the assistance of these hints. Unless of course you like events such as being mangled by a jet engine or shells exploding around you, telling you that after ten years of inactivity the military zone has become operational and is closed to all none-participants from 8h00 to 17h00 for two weeks. When there is a possibility that I will run into an area that I am not so familiar with (i.e. when the trip lasts more than a few days), maps and airspace information get taken along. Just to be sure.

Last but not least, sometimes I really like to know where I am. Whether I am near a shelter, water source, or train station for example. Good navigation can make the difference between a happy end or a sad one.

Which way to Sentier?With my feet on the earth and a heavy pack on my shoulders, efficient navigation is vital for my well-being. Especially when searching for villages like Sentier or towns like Toutes Directions. There is little fun in walking around randomly with an uncomfortably load that is meant to be flown rather than walked around. The main purpose for hiking during vol bivouac is to get to a take-off, shelter, water or food. Enjoying the scenery is a beautiful accidental circumstance, but not the main goal of hiking. I would not mind to wander around aimlessly if my pack was ten kilograms or so, but unfortunately it is not. Therefore, I prefer reaching my destination by the most efficient path. There could be a (small) detour to enjoy a special view, or because of the nicer hiking (e.g. to avoid a busy road or to be in the shade), but hiking (rather than flying) all over the place simply consumes too much energy to be really pleasant for more than a few days in a row. Your vol bivouac is unlikely to last long if you walk a lot. I can handle about a week of hiking with little to no flying, but after that I really need to recover (i.e. go home) or some good flying weather to relax body and mind.

Efficient navigation might mean the difference between a perfect flying day or completely missing one. Arriving on a take-off at the end of a perfect flying day, while you counted on reaching it at the end of the morning, tends to weaken morale. One such event is bearable. A few in a row, and you are about to collapse. Days like these tend to be physically challenging (long walks), but especially the mental challenge is hard to cope with (another missed flying day). If you can handle these days, then nothing stands in the way of doing really long vol bivouacs. When you intend to leave for just a few days, you can pick a time of comfortably good weather. When gone for a few weeks, you are likely to have a few of those testing days. Days that you will be asking yourself why you are doing this. Always a good question to pose, by the way!

Besides all of the above reasons, the main purpose of navigation is probably about finding your way back, rather than getting somewhere. Remember that even if you have no idea where you are, you can still navigate. As long as you do not want to reach a specific spot, such as home or your car, then you are not lost. And if you are lost, then try to keep on navigating. You will run into familiar ground eventually.

Questions that define navigation Navigation consists of posing yourself three questions, as given on the left. As long as you know the answers, your navigation is all right. Do not panic when lacking one of the answers. You will probably be able to deduce it from the two answers you already do know, as well as from the clues around you. For example, if you do not know where you are, but you do know where you came from and in which direction you have been heading, then counting the time (or your steps) since your last known reference will indicate your current position. This approach is known as dead reckoning, though I have no idea why it is supposed to be dead. And if for example you know which valley you are in, but you are surrounded by a fog that hides all visible clues, then following the river upstream gets you up the valley and closer to the mountains (when searching for a take-off or a mountain pass) and downstream gets you down the valley (when searching for a village or city).

Today, people mainly rely on satellite navigation (satnav for short or GPS). As electronics rapidly progresses everywhere, talking maps seem to conquer the world, while paper maps seem to be disappearing just as quickly. As does the ability to use them. Navigational intelligence of the average human being seems to be disappearing as well. People get lost when their satnav has not been updated with the latest data, while driving in a recently constructed neighbourhood for example. There have also been people that drove into rivers (because their satnav indicated a bridge, rather than the actual ferry), that parked on a railway and collided with a train (their satnav did not indicate the railway crossing), that collided with a wall (their satnav did not say it was a dead end street), that ran down the stairs of a pedestrian tunnel (apparently satnav has no concept of stairs), et cetera. These incidents happened despite the obvious clues that where there. I mean, how difficult is it to see that there is no bridge across the river? How difficult is it to see the end of the dead end street? Yet somehow, drivers (and hikers as well?) seem to have more trust in technology (their satnav) than in their own observational skills that could have prevented these incidents. It reminds me of paragliding pilots that are so focussed on their electronics that they fly into other pilots, trees or mountains.

So, let's give all this technical stuff a rest and use some common sense instead. Let's navigate naturally, like our ancestors did before they got swallowed by technology.

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2010-06-10