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#142 Nordo

December, 2012

The first time I ever flew behind a modern flat panel display it was a Garmin 1000 in a brand new 182.  The owner had asked me to help him learn to land his new airplane.  He had no problem with the display.  In fact, he gave me a bit of a tutorial on it during our first flight.  I think I helped him with his landings, but more importantly, we succeeded in uncovering what is now a commonly understood drawback of these PFD’s and MFD’s.  This pilot had a tendency to look too closely at that display.  Since it could show traffic (if that traffic had a transponder), he was beginning to assume that the traffic shown on his screen was THE traffic.  We all know about this disturbing tendency.  I’m certainly not the first aviation writer to cover this subject.  This debate has roots that go way back and it’s useful to know about those roots.

Pilots twenty or thirty years ago were all taught that they shouldn’t count on all


No flat panel display in this Cub!

airplanes being equipped with radios or those radios being properly used to announce position in a pattern or elsewhere. That made sense, and most newly trained pilots were doing a pretty good job of keeping their attention outside the cockpit so they could spot those NORDO (“no radio”) aircraft.  But something has changed.

You can now somewhat safely assume that there will not be a NORDO aircraft in the traffic pattern.  I said it was a somewhat safe assumption.  I didn’t say that there would not be one such airplane in that pattern.

I was one of them just a few weeks ago.  Ferrying an airplane back to Sisters, I decided to swoop in to Sunriver and get a bit of practice.  My PTT switch had been threatening to quit and it did just that.  Another guy taxiing for takeoff had no idea I was there.  As he reached the end of the runway which he was mistakenly using as a runup area, he took his time.  So I went into “lurk” mode, staying overhead and close, ready to swoop in and land.  He concerned himself with his pre-flight check and never did a 360 to check the sky.  I’ve left that one off myself.  I may not again.  Then he took off and I swooped in right behind him, did a little work on the runway and turned it into a touch and go.  Climbing on course, I overtook him and gradually flew past. I even waved at him. He never saw me.


“…I even waved at him as I went by…”

It’s pretty obvious that this pilot was not thinking about NORDO aircraft.  Was it because he had a Garmin 1000?  I don’t think so… he was flying a J-3 Cub.   Maybe he was depending on that radio.  You know, the one on which I couldn’t be heard.

We have an issue with pilots not keeping their heads out of the cockpit.  It is not a simple issue.  It’s important to deal with all the reasons for this shortcoming:

TIS (traffic information service) displays have a tendency to lull a pilot into thinking that they display ALL the traffic.  They certainly don’t.

Because the MFD shows so much information, a pilot will tend to fixate on it as it displays terrain, navaids, instrumentation and the location of the nearest ATM.  But it’s not just the modern, complex stuff that pilots are becoming dependent on.  One of my most talented occasional students still panics when I cover her turn and bank, airspeed and turn off her GPS.  She shouldn’t.  Whatever happened to “fly the flippin’ airplane”?

Modern flight instruction adopted the integrated method of flight instruction many years ago.  Every maneuver is taught with both attitude AND instrument reference.  This encourages the pilot’s attention to be on the gauges right from the start of primary training.  No amount of “lip service” on the part of flight instructors will lessen the baggage this technique creates. And even an airplane such as a J-3 with “steam gauges” can con a flier into failing to look out the windshield.

Also, the diminishing number of aircraft either not equipped with a radio or equipped with one that’s not functioning has had a disturbing tendency to keep our heads inside and not looking for traffic.  And if that weren’t enough, an incredibly high percentage of pilots who are equipped with a radio announce their position incorrectly!  They tell you that they are North when they are South.  They call “right downwind” when they are left and they even call the wrong airport or runway! No wonder we can’t find ‘em!

Interestingly, it’s instrument training that offers hope to remedy the problem.  Instrument training stresses “the scan” and the scan, properly adapted to VFR flight in simple airplanes, will keep the pilot’s head out of the cockpit except for necessary scans of some instruments, most notably the oil pressure gauge, which is the most important gauge in most airplanes.

In another article in the Tailwheeler’s Journal, you’ll see an article concerned with landing pilots having “tunnel vision” because the normal landing is so challenging to them.  It’s the same issue.  We should all keep our heads on a swivel.  It only takes one time, one missed collision, to make this practice one of the most important you will ever develop.

Happy Swooping (and scanning!)


6 comments to #142 Nordo

  • Brian,

    Super good advice, and more timely than ever! Here’s an acronym I use to ‘scan’ the audio view outside of the cockpit. My flight instructor drilled this into me almost half a century ago. He suggested, after receiving instruction from a controller God, I hesitate a second and use this acronym to double check the situation. DIMS…Does It Make Sense?

    Shortly after receiving this advice, I was on a left base to land at Longview, Texas on a clear day. I was looking out the window at a Trans Texas Convar 330 airliner at my altitude on a long straight-in. I began to wonder how this was going to work when the tower trainee controller called and politely asked me to make a clearing 360 for the Convair, a 360 to the right! DIMS. “Ah, do you mind if I make that turn to the left?” I asked. A soft, female voice with a pleasant Texas drawl came right back, “Afiiirrrmative, I was think’n my right, that there’d be a good plan sir, thank you.”


  • John Meade

    I have a friend from upstate New York who with a sectional and a road map flys anywhere here in New England in his PA11
    He does so at 500 AGL through the hills. He is the poster child for NORDO. This while the rest of us scream around with GPS and two radio airplanes.

  • Ron Apfelbaum

    Good points Brian. Recently I had a Cessna 210 pass me in my cub as I was entering the pattern at our home field. I made all the usual calls, he was silent. I watched him fly the downwind then extend & reverse course and silently fly back though the downwind, at pattern altitude, as I descended to keep safe distance between us. I flew base and turned final making extra calls and then saw him on short final landing on the only runway the opposite direction, downwind with a 15kt tailwind! Oh well, its good to practice go-arounds.

    When I landed we had a discussion on the ramp. He had failed to change frequency and so any calls he made were not heard at our airport. So even well equipped aircraft can effectively be NORDO. Still no explanation why he ignored 2 wind socks and the tetrahedron. Probably the same reason he wasn’t seeing traffic. Something about looking but not seeing or seeing what you expect to see. Does that sound like a topic for another article?

    Keep up the good work and keep reminding us of these important issues.

  • Tom Glatte

    Good and timely article

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