The Homing Pigeon

by Lt.Col. John Larrison, USAF (Ret.)

This story took place when I was a captain back in 1962. I was an instructor pilot for the USAF Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) program flying the T-37 at Vance AFB, Enid, Oklahoma.

This story involves an air national guard first lieutenant who was one of my student pilots. His training called for three dual round-robin navigation flights. A round-robin navigation flights departs and returns to base without landing at another base.

Following these dual flights, the student flew two solo round-robins. He was then ready to fly navigation flights to other bases.

Oklahoma is very flat. On a clear day, a student could see the large white grain storage silos on the north side of Enid for many miles. Therefore, the T-37 round-robin was not really a very challenging navigation problem. To increase the value of the student’s navigation training, I would give the student a “dead” problem on the third navigation mission.

Dead reckoning is navigating from one point to another flying only a heading and time. You turn to a heading and fly the calculated time based on forecast winds and your calculated ground speed. It is a very basic form of navigation without radio or radar navigational aids. This was well before the development of GPS. It is rarely used and not thought to be very accurate. But, it does work when all else fails.

My training goal was to show the student that it could be used if all else failed and he needed it.

On the last round-robin mission, I would have the student plan the second leg of the route as precisely as he could. Then, when we turned onto that leg of the route, I would put him under the “visor” to fly out the pre-planned time for that leg on his planned heading. The visor was a device placed on the helmet which prevented him from seeing outside the cockpit.

With all navigation radios off, his only references were his cockpit heading, altitude, and airspeed instruments. This reduces his navigation to a heading and time to his next checkpoint or “dead reckoning.” At the end of the normal fifteen to twenty minute leg, I would remove the visor and have the student see how close to the destination point he was. They were normally very close and it was a great confidence builder.

Today it was my student’s last dual round-robin and he was prepared for the “dead reckoning” leg. We made the turn to the proper compass heading. He recorded the time, placed the visor on, and started flying on instruments only. As we proceeded down the planed course, I could see that we were right on the planned ground track. Now my student was only an average instrument pilot but today, he was right on airspeed, heading, and altitude. In fact the instruments were not even moving. I remember reaching over and tapping on them to make sure that they were not “stuck.”

The instruments were working, he was on heading, and I could see that he was going to end up right over the check point.

Then about ten minutes down the twenty minute leg, he made a perfect five degree turn to the right, rolled out and was holding this new heading as well as he had been before. Why did he turn? I had told myself prior to these dead reckoning tests, that if a student got off track, I would just let them go and see if they could find the check-point when the flight time for the leg was up. It might even lead to some “lost procedure” practice.

As I monitored his progress, I could see us headed off track and would therefore miss the checkpoint by several miles.

After a few more minutes, I just couldn’t stand it any longer and asked him, “Why did you make a five degree turn back there?”

With all the honesty I think he could muster, he said, “Sir, I just had a feeling I was off to the left.”

My response was, “Lieutenant, get back on that heading. What the heck do you think you are a homing pigeon?”

From that day on, when I briefed him for a solo mission, I told him that I’d place some “Corn” on the approach end of the runway so he could always find his way back home.