The Flight of the Navigator (or something like that)

I’ve previously written about flying in a speed rally – where we fly a set course against our aircraft’s handicap speed. It’s fast and furious and exciting with lots of close up flying. The other class of competition flying is the Navigation Rally, which I was lucky enough to be a competitor in this weekend.

My aircraft is still undergoing annual inspection (well, actually as I write, the inspection is complete – we are waiting on a post maintenance test flight for it to be signed out again), so I was to be the designated navigator for Matthew in the Mooney. Whereas a speed rally is simply flying a course as fast as possible (and reasonably accurately), the navigation rally is quite a lot more complex. The papers that are given to each crew contain turn point descriptions, a 1:200000 topographic map, a sheet of photos of turn points and places to spot and a time sheet based on a nominated speed.

Starting with the turn point descriptions – these are given as bearings to or from a lat/long reference and distances.

Which sounds reasonably simple except the organisers get sneaky, changed the distances from km to nm, bearings FROM and TO, and also mix up the TRUE and MAGNETIC bearings.

This means you need to be very much on your toes.

Time sheet – times to aim for – penalties applied if you’re early or late at each turnpoint

The first step is to plot the turn points on the map provided. Thereafter, bearings are plotted for each leg and these converted to magnetic course. Then the times are added to the map. The times are important because if you don’t spot the turn-point, you can use the time to know more or less where to turn. (In theory).

Completed map – Bearings in Green, turnpoints in Blue, Course and time markings in red

In competition Nav rally flying (this was a fun event), you have 30minutes to do all this. It would be a real push, but given the correct equipment, and a sense of the conversions required, you’d be able to get the majority done prior to getting to the aircraft and the rest while the pilot was taxiing. So, maps, photos, trackers etc in hand we set off for the aircraft. You are given a specific takeoff time – calculated on nominated speed. For Nav rallies the fastest aircraft go first, so we were first up. Once airborne, we found our starting gate, and we did a few orbits to hit it a just the correct time. In the fun class, you have 15seconds to cross your gates, in the serious levels, it’s only 5 seconds.

Having to cross your gate at a specific time means that you need to adjust your speed constantly – this is the job of the pilot. The navigator’s job is to monitor progress and give information to the pilot about progress. In addition to the precision flying, we also have a collection of photos of objects on the ground.

These are taken from Google Earth and when you see the object matching the photo you need to indicate how far the object is from the previous waypoint on your scoring/timesheet.

This was a fantastic idea in theory. In practice however, it was MUCH harder. We only managed to observe 3 of the 10 ‘on-leg’ objects. This was mostly because we got lost became temporarily unsure of our position after turn 6 and managed to miss turns 7, 8 and 9.

This was a bit frustrating and we still are not sure of how we went wrong – my bearings corresponded with those of other competitors, and we were spot on for all the turns up to that point. We suspect a dodgy DI but ultimately it is the navigator’s job to keep on course, so I will fall on my sword here…. We did end on a high note by flying directly over the finish point at least. I would guess that those guys flying high wing aircraft were also at some advantage as there is precious little space to view the ground from the Mooney cockpit.

Getting it all right…. and then all wrong…

As can be seen, the track flown left much to be desired. However, despite this, our timing was almost perfect for the turns we did manage to make so it wasn’t all bad. As one competitor pointed out, there is no way that flying these events can do any harm for your flying i.e it can only improve. It is satisfying plotting out a route, working out bearings and timings, and then flying those correctly. Yes, flying the magenta line gets you where you’re going, but not all flying is about going somewhere. It’s about pitting yourself against your own skills, and the elements (as much as one can call the Gauteng spring winds ‘elements’), and the clock. You can compete against others but the real satisfaction for a beginner is the competition against oneself.

The record will reflect that we won the fun section of the rally. (The record also reflects that there was only one other team in the fun section). Still, we had a good time. Next time I’m flying…..

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