As a Navigator, most people really have no idea what I do when I fly. I can’t say I blame them since there are almost no commercial aircraft that fly with a navigator, or engineer, anymore. With the growth of GPS use there honestly isn’t much need for us most of the time. Even the plane I currently fly on is being replaced by one that doesn’t need a navigator, or an engineer.
With that being said, a lot of the work I do outside of flying is important to the missions that all kinds of different aircraft do. The vast majority of work that I have done for the last year or so is building charts for us to fly with. I won’t bore you with the details of what that entails, but suffice it to say that it is essential to keeping our crews safe so they can effectively accomplish their missions. As a navigator, utilizing my chart effectively is vital to getting us where we need to be and when we need to be there to drop off our cargo.
Chart reading is a diminishing skill in this modern era of GPS, which is really a shame, but the reality is that it doesn’t matter how well you can read a chart if the chart is inaccurate. The crazy thing is that many of the charts we use today were made as many as 50 years ago. I’m sure it is not much of stretch to convince you that quite a bit has changed in the landscape in 50 years or so.
What’s awesome is that the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), who is responsible for keeping those charts updated, is actively working to do just that. The Washington Post has a great article about the details of that program and how it is slowly working to improve safety in the greatest frontier in the US, Alaska. They wrote about how awesome this program can be better than I could, but there is one aspect of the story that I want to focus on.
These updated charts will drastically improve safety in all parts of the US, but most of all in Alaska where, according to the article, you are 36 times more likely to die than the average US worker. That is just unacceptable when the ability exists to drastically improve safety. Improved technologies like airborne lasers (lidar) and radar (ifsar) are capable of creating not just better paper maps, but collecting the data necessary to improve GPS and other new devices that can save these courageous pilots’ lives.
Unfortunately, the government’s inability to pass actual budgets has stalled the project and delayed the benefits that it can bring. There is so much benefit to be realized that some of the contractors have continued working in the hope that the funding will ultimately materialize. It is incredibly irresponsible of those in a position to make a difference to stand idly by while they could take action that will save lives.
The aforementioned article gets into some of the specific numbers but it is a relative pittance that would be needed to have significant financial improvements to go along with the safety benefits. At this point we can only hope that those in a position to make this happen will get past the politics and take action so that they can make the money they so anxiously pursue, but more importantly save the lives of people who deserve the best information we can give them.