September 2, 2014
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Be sure to check your course
This Side Up

The smallest adjustment can have dramatic outcomes.

Surely someone has said it much better than that. But the lesson is simple as understood by mariners when setting a course before the days of loran and the GPS. A deviation of only several degrees can result in a totally different outcome the further one gets from the initial mistake.

One degree off course can put a sailor hundreds of miles from the intended destination at the end of a transatlantic trip. On the other hand, the variation of a degree is not noticeable over a mile or 10.

It’s a reason why sailors and aviators regularly check their position, even with the seemingly infallible technology at our disposal, especially when out of sight of landmarks.

Over the last two weeks, the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has captured the headlines and our imaginations. How, in this age of technology, could a plane of such size virtually disappear? Why would someone want to make it disappear? And, of course, what happened to it?

The theories abound. Each shred of new information opens another range of possibilities. The focus changes constantly, and, like others, I found myself drawn into tuning in to CNN to get the latest – and, with fascination, see how the media is capable of spinning out the story.

This isn’t a miscalculation of intended course judging from radar reports that the aircraft dramatically altered course and its transponder was shut off. So, you might wonder why mention Flight 370 at all? What does this have to do with one or two degrees this way or that way?

While communications have shrunk the world bringing us closer together, the vastness of our planet is unchanged. The greatest appreciation of that has come for me at sea and in the air. In sailing to Bermuda, which I’ve done on three occasions, I’ve been awed by the expanse of the ocean. Two of those voyages were races, and one of those races depended on celestial navigation.

I know little of “shooting” the stars or the sun, but thankfully our navigator, Bill Clavin, did. He sat on deck, elbows on his knees like a tripod with his eye to the sextant while another crewmember marked down the time of each shot. Then, through a process of calculations that left me befuddled, Billy would tell us where we were. He’d go below and, on a chart of open ocean, place a dot to indicate our longitude and latitude. He would then draw a line from our last position and he would confer with his father, Leo, and the rest of the four of us. We’d take into consideration our position relative to Gulf Stream eddies and weather fronts that could impact projected winds in maintaining or altering our course.

A sextant was also used aboard the New York National Guard C-97 I flew to Da Nang during the Vietnam War. This one was mounted in a small round window in the cockpit ceiling. The navigator used that, the radio and aircraft instruments in determining our location and course.

By today’s standards, the four-engine prop plane was a noisy and lumbering craft. We didn’t attempt a nonstop transcontinental flight in the C-97, and if the wind conditions were bad, as they were, we couldn’t make the jump from San Francisco to Hawaii. The solution was to fly to Los Angeles, where we picked up a tail wind.

I spent a lot of time in the cockpit of a C-97 as I did much later aboard National Guard C-130s on flights to Panama and Tasar, Hungary. The world from a cockpit, like that from above the deck of a boat, is immense, especially when out of sight of land. On our trip to Vietnam we received a radio request midway between Wake Island and Guam to keep watch for a ship that had not been heard from in a couple of days. The pilot and the co-pilot said they would, but it seemed evident that after glancing down at the Pacific they weren’t serious. If they weren’t going to take this seriously, I would.

The ocean was rippled with waves reflecting the sun in endless silver rows. How one could spot a ship, no less something far smaller, bobbing on the surface seemed like an exercise in futility. But I kept at it. My crewmates laughed at my persistence. And finally, when the sun set, I gave up.

It must be the same for those looking for traces of Flight 370, even with the aid of satellite, radar and today’s sophisticated equipment. Nonetheless, in this age where our whereabouts can be pinpointed by our cell phones and getting lost is virtually unheard of, I find myself thinking of those one or two degrees.

The world is not only vast, but so also are our opportunities.

Checking our compasses, determining our location – taking stock – may seem mundane, but it improves the chance of realizing our goals without too many surprises. There are frontiers and distances to bridge. Knowing our position is critical.


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