A Trip Through Reality – How Aviation Helped Me Navigate Covid-19

I spent twenty years in the USAF as a navigator. It was my job to collect in-flight data in the form of indicated airspeed, magnetic heading, groundspeed, drift, temperature, charted magnetic variation, (declination), radar altimeter, pressure altitude, time, radar returns, radials and distance from electronic aids to navigation, and the observed heights of various celestial bodies. I mathematically transformed all of the above into three things at least once every hour:

  • DR Position – my calculated estimate as to where we were going to be at Fix Time
  • Fix Position – my calculated actual position based upon the sum total of all available information
  • Alter Heading – my calculated estimate as to where we needed to go and how long it would take to get there

Using the collection of tools the USAF crammed into our skulls over the course of some 15 months of training in both navigation and our specific airframes, we were actually able to navigate all over the globe using nothing but some charts, some star tables, our rather primitive onboard instruments, and a manual circular slide rule affectionately called the “whiz wheel” but more formally know as a DR Computer or Manual Flight Computer.

For the first few years, I flew the B-52H. Here’s a shot of my office:

Thereafter, I flew the C-130E all over the United States, South America, Europe and the Middle East:

About three-fifths of the way through my career, I had an opportunity to grab my private pilots license and my instrument rating, earning both while mastering and using this panel from a Cessna 172 Skyhawk to successfully aviate, navigate and communicate all over Arkansas and a portion of the East Coast whether I could see outside my window or not:

172 IFR Panel

MY POINT is that we ALWAYS operated off of known good data. That doesn’t mean we didn’t occasionally receive bad data. Whether by operator error or system malfunction, bad data was actually quite common. It was our job, not to mention our lives, to analyze all the available data in order to determine what data was valid and which elements fell outside the circle of plausibility and could not be trusted. I did this at least once per hour and upwards of many times per hour over the course of 2,500+ hours. So, call it ~5,000 to 8,000 correct analyses with only a couple of burbles and zero incidents, accidents or fatalities.

So, yes, “Nice shootin’, Tex!” is appropriate. Thank you, and you’re welcome to all passengers I delivered safely to their destinations.

Unfortunately, either navigator or pilot error cost the lives of seven of my friends along the way, five in military aviation and three in general aviation. As the old saying goes, “Aviation is not inherently dangerous. It’s just terribly unforgiving.” There was always a serious amount of pressure, and justifiably so, to never take any data at face value. Instead, we always evaluated that information in the light of other information using a number of both easy and complex mathematical techniques. If it passed muster, terrific — we’d add it to the heap. But if it failed the requisite cross-checks, we’d lay it aside as being untrustworthy, and would instead pin our navigation and aviation upon more reliable data.

Precisely the same holds true for Covid-19 information. Twenty months ago, there was hardly any, certainly not enough to make well-informed decisions. Then, by June of 2020, the floodgates had opened, but almost no one knew enough about virology, immunology, epidemiology AND statistics to make actionable heads or tails of it.

Fortunately, I’d given myself crash courses in the necessary subjects and had been studying the problems intently for more than fourth months, with enough education, experience and drive to actually make headway.

Sadly, I’ve lost a couple of friends and neighbors to Covid-19 for precisely the same reason. They erred, thinking Covid-19 wasn’t the threat everyone was making it out to be, and as a direct result of Covid-19, they’re no longer with us today.

My duty today is the same as it was during those twenty years: To successfully and safely navigate the waters of information surrounding Covid-19, selecting the best and most accurate date while identifying and disposing of errant data.

Believe me folks, when I say there’s a LOT of bad information out there. Whether it’s the result of ignorant zealots, conspiracy theory nutcases, or bad actors attempting to maximize harm to our nation, the Internet has it’s fair share of backyard bullshit bloggers, often pulling double-duty as priests and other members of trusted communities, to the detriment of many, along with the deaths of some in those communities.

While on average it leaves just over 200 people alive, it’s terribly unforgiving to an average of one in that group of just over 200 people. The only way to avoid being that one is to observe all the risk-mitigating strategies and procedures available, beginning with masks, social distancing, limiting contact frequency and duration, increased sanitation and of course, receiving one of the three FDA-approved vaccines available to those of us here in the U.S. which increase our chances of living by more than 500 times while greatly reducing the rather severe side effects of contracting the disease.

As the estimable king of science fiction once said, “To stay young requires the unceasing cultivation of the ability to unlearn old falsehoods.” – Robert A. Heinlein

And folks, having run great volumes of information to ground, I’m here to tell you there are a great many falsehoods being spread around the Internet over Covid-19. It’s not, however, what the conspiracy groups think. Rather, they’re the ones spreading it.

Updated: October 14, 2021 — 9:49 pm