2019: A Fond Farewell for the NDB

Flight training entails the use of several items of clothing and equipment not normally issued to a young lieutenant, and while I readily understood the purpose of the SPH-4 aviators helmet1, and my flame retardant Nomex® flight clothing, other items like the E6-B flight computer2 baffled me. Fortunately I learned my very first day on the flight line that my single most important piece of equipment was my stick buddy – another student I was teamed up with. We sat in class together, studied for exams together, and when we transitioned to the UH-1 we flew together. We alternated between actually flying the aircraft and sitting in a jump seat just aft and between the student at the controls and the instructor pilot who was situated where he could observe. Then we’d swap places and learn from our mistakes.

I was fortunate to draw Scott the Former Cadet as my partner, and while as a rule he was a great guy to work with, there was one time when I questioned his sanity. I was at the controls, but out of the corner of my eye I could see his head slightly rocking, and I began to wonder if he had some sort of nervous tic brought on by the stress of flying. It turned out that he was in fact “rocking out”. Drawing on his background as an electronics maintenance officer he’d figured how to listen to music simulcast over an NDB at the same time he listened to the instructor pilot’s calm, thoughtful, and insightful commentary on my performance3 that day.

So what was an NDB? It was a “non-directional beacon”, an almost-gone old-tech radio aid that used outmoded technology differing a bit from other newer aids to aerial navigation. The NDB’s signal had no inherent locational information but in fact was the instrument flight version of a lighthouse giving a relative bearing to the transmitter with no reference to north or south. Finding your way with an NDB was a multi-step process: you had to find the transmitter’s location on a chart, and after some number crunching, figure out where you were and where you were going.

Recently the FAA announced plans to drop questions about non-directional beacons from the written exam for instrument flight certification, a move that bothered me because as outmoded as they are these NDBs had their benefits. For example in one flying area where I logged a lot of hours the terrain was such that the newer and more sophisticated beacons were less reliable than the older versions. NDBs also had a longer range at lower altitudes and as a bonus could give notice of unknown thunderstorms when electricity released by lightening would “crackle” on their less distinct signal.

For most of my life I’ve had a circle of friends that functioned much like a system of NDBs, a group of people with a wide range of age, background, faith and gender whose positive examples helped me navigate the moral terrain of my life. I started out with most of them being home-grown Alaskans from my youth, but other “flavors” came along during my travels as a student, missionary, soldier, design professional and teacher. These friends – combined with my board of directors4 – formed a network of moral NDBs to guide me in life the same way the actual beacons gave directions for flying without visual reference.

Unfortunately I am now in the 55-to-dead demographic and both the state of the world and my own situation brings to mind the words of British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey on the eve of the Great War: “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time”. My personal NDBs are getting fewer and fewer as time goes on: some are passing away, some have succumbed to the ravages of different forms of mental impairment but sadly there are those who’ve lost their way and have been unable to keep their principles while becoming lost in a social overcast of catchphrases, buzzwords and political correctness.

Before the term “fix” took on its unfortunate drug overtone, the word was used in navigation as a reference to a point where two star-sightings or radio beams intersected and provided a location on the map. Getting a fix is OK, but what you really want is a “good fix” – three beams intersecting and giving a much more precise location. As I lose more of those moral NDBs it gets harder and harder to get a fix much less a “good fix” as I navigate on my journey through life.

Make no mistake – in my lifetime I have been witness to forms of prejudice and injustice that were sorely in need of redress, and while great strides have been made there is still much to be done.

However, there is something inherently flawed in the way both sides of the political spectrum are addressing these problems. As I listen in on the dialog about those unsolved problems it is especially distressing to hear that chilling maxim “the end justifies the means” uttered most often by those who do not know the source of the adage, namely Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, a 16th century Florentine government functionary and philosopher who first used the words as justification for manipulation and duplicity in his political treatise The Prince.

…and then I wonder if they’ve also missed the work of Georges Santayana when he wrote that “ those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it” and are clueless as to how quickly political chaos can devolve into totalitarianism? Only ten years separate the Beer Haul Putsch 1923 from the German government’s national boycott of Jewish business which put the Holocaust in motion. Think about it – ten years ago for us now was 2009, the year that Micheal Jackson died, Barack Obama was sworn in and the Great Recession ran out of steam.

Doesn’t seem that long ago, eh?

As I get older I find that navigating perilous socio-political waters takes a lot more out of me, and just leading a good life doesn’t seem to be enough anymore. Instead we’re called on to prove our “goodness” by negotiating a series of steps that seem to change in mid-stride, but just as the effort is more tiring the emotional response remains the same. My own set of values are well established, so I’ll continue on the moral path I have chosen…

…but it gets kind of lonely sometimes.

 


Notes

  1. AKA “brain bucket”
  2. Nifty slide ruler with a frosted  Mylar(R)  window that allowed you calculate airspeed, ground speed, fuel consumption and the myriad ways the wind could screw up your flight plan
  3. Please engage your sarcasm filter for this sentence.
  4. See Board of Directors Part 1: Richard Bird

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