Crossing the vast blue ocean without getting lost

Getting an airplane from point A to point B eighty years ago was often a lot more difficult than it is today. If the weather was nice, or if they flew over familiar territory, it wasn’t so hard to find their destination as they could follow roads, rivers and cities to get where they wanted to be, but at night, or in cloudy weather, or over the ocean it became a mixture of mathematics, piloting skill, and luck to end up where they were supposed to be.

Some very basic navigation radios existed then, but they weren’t all that reliable or accurate. The most common method of navigating when you couldn’t see outside or use navigation beacons was ded reckoning (short for deduced reckoning). This meant the pilot or navigator would figure out what direction they were going, how fast they moved through the air, and then added in what effect the wind would have on their journey. After a calculated period of time they should be over their next waypoint, or maybe their destination. If the winds shifted enroute, or their compass wasn’t as accurate as they hoped, they could often end up miles from where they thought they were. It took a lot of steely nerves to get in an airplane and point it in a certain direction, hoping that when they popped out of the clouds at some point they would know where there were.

As the airlines grew their need for reliability grew too. Not only did the planes themselves have to function as planned, but the routes and schedule times had to be just as precise. It wouldn’t do an airline much good to tell a planeload of passengers they were heading toward Des Moines and have them unexpectedly disembark in Omaha. So on longer journeys the flight crew often included a navigator, whose job was to ensure the plane went where it was supposed to. Even into the early years of the jet age navigators were part of the crew on long-distance flights, as crossing the oceans was still mostly a matter of ded reckoning. Once they neared the coastlines of their destination they could pick up a radio beacon and remove whatever navigational error had occurred over the water. Whichever way it was done though, there were frequent problems.

Amelia Earhart was one of the most famous victims of navigational error. She and her navigator Fred Noonan set out from New Guinea for Hawaii, with a planned stop on a tiny speck of land called Howland Island. What happened to them is still a mystery, with dozens of competing theories vying for attention. What is known for sure is that they didn’t land on Howland, and no definitive sign of their whereabouts has been found yet. Did Noonan make a mistake in his navigational calculations? Was there an error in the onboard equipment? There was a radio beacon on Howland Island, but it isn’t known if it was turned on at the correct time, of if Earhart & Noonan simply couldn’t hear it. Maybe if the wreckage of their plane is someday found it might help answer some of these questions. But for now it remains a mystery, and Howland Island still sits near the equator, the airstrip plowed out for Earhart unused and overgrown with grass.

Fast forward nearly eighty years from Earhart’s era, and things are decidedly different. Airlines fly planes to all the corners of the planet with accuracy undreamt of by Earhart and her contemporaries. Inertial navigation systems, laser ring gyros, and GPS satellites can tell a pilot where he is with a precision of just a few feet, even in the middle of the ocean. The technology that sprouted from aviation’s need to know where a plane is has spread to many other fields too. Even our everyday smartphones can track your movements as you run, bike or walk your way to health.

I use these technologies all the time as I fly across the Pacific Ocean, with multiple layers of redundancy that tell me I should never get lost. On a recent flight from Honolulu to Brisbane Australia, I pulled out a list of latitudes & longitudes I had written down indicating the position of various small islands along the routes we most often flew. Some of the island I already knew – the ones that either lay directly on our path, or were big enough to see from hundreds of miles away. But some islands are just mere specks of coral in a vast ocean, and they might sit fifty or a hundred miles off to the side of our route. Unless we knew just where to look, we’d probably never see them.

There are several published routes our dispatcher can send us on to get from Hawaii to Australia. The choice usually comes down to whichever one gets us there the quickest, while avoiding areas of bad weather. The route I flew that day was the one that passed closest to Howland Island. It would still be sixty or seventy miles to our left as we approached the equator, which would make it difficult to spot because of its small size. But I had technology on my side.

As we neared the general area of the island I programmed the latitude and longitude of Howland into our flight management system to display it as a point on the moving map in the cockpit. It would pass off to our left, and the low scattered puffballs of clouds might hide it from our view. But just as we got close, there it was, off in the hazy distance. A flat, treeless sandbar of an island maybe a mile and a half long, with foamy white breakers outlining the reef around it, right where our moving map said it should be. It was tiny and exposed in the vast expanse of the Pacific. That was the miniscule speck that Earhart and Noonan tried in vain to locate back in 1937. Both the co-pilot and I looked at it, and commented on how easy it was for us to see, in comparison to the life-or-death search faced by Earhart. A few minutes later the island drifted out of sight behind us, and we continued our flight – comfortable, warm, and well-fed.

I try to not take today’s technology for granted. It can do amazing things for us, yes. But that technology was often bought at the price of great human effort in the past. I try to remember the sacrifices of those who got us to where we are now. And for those trailblazers, I’ll be forever grateful.

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