The Secrets of the Wave Pilots

There is a wonderful long-read article in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine titled The Secrets of the Wave Pilots. It never mentions flying or airmanship, but it’s thought-provoking contemplative stuff for any aviator concerned about visual flying skills. And it’s an in-depth romp through animal navigation, GPS, modern brain science and almost lost ancient knowledge.

The glue of the story is Alson Kelen, “potentially the world’s last-ever apprentice in the ancient art of wave-piloting”. That’s the science and art of navigating among the Marshall Islands with no modern tools. Once thought impossible, we know now that somehow it is possible, but we really don’t know how. The last re-meto, a proven Marshallese navigator, is studied by science.

“They wondered if watching him sail, in the context of growing concerns about the neurological effects of navigation-by-smartphone, would yield hints about how our orienteering skills influence our sense of place, our sense of home, even our sense of self.”

Picture from NYT Magazine
Picture from NYT Magazine

I’m not going to spoil the story. But once you’ve read it, you will think differently about pilotage and hand-flying a visual approach. To non-pilots it looks like magic, but it is a skill we all learn. The sense of the wind drift. The smoke blowing on downwind. The ripples on the lake on final. We are re-meto’s of the sky. Or we used to be. GPS, iPad, FMS, SOP, RNP, all are slowly robbing us of the ‘ancient art’ of airmanship.

“Detecting the minute differences in what, to an untutored eye, looks no more meaningful than a washing-machine cycle allows a ri-meto, a person of the sea in Marshallese, to determine where the nearest solid ground is — and how far off it lies — long before it is visible.”

I’ve long thought that all pilots need time flying kites to genuinely feel the changing wind; and all pilots need to start flying in sailplanes to really know the wind. This article also convinced me we need to allow students—and ourselves—to get a little off course so we can cement the airborne ri-moto skills.

“Recent studies have shown that people who use GPS, when given a pen and paper, draw less-precise maps of the areas they travel through and remember fewer details about the landmarks they pass; paradoxically, this seems to be because they make fewer mistakes getting to where they’re going. Being lost — assuming, of course, that you are eventually found — has one obvious benefit: the chance to learn about the wider world and reframe your perspective. From that standpoint, the greatest threat posed by GPS might be that we never do not know exactly where we are.”

Photo from NYT magazine
Photo from NYT magazine

What do you think? What ‘ancient art’ signals you have learnt? What do you trust when the voltage drops to zero?

(All quotes from: The Secrets of the Wave Pilots, by Kim Tingley, New York Times Magazine, 17 March, 2016.)

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