It was a clear day, and by the time we reached our cruising altitude of 750 meters, Alex seemed to have gotten the hang of the controls-and our flight felt smooth. We could easily make out downtown Boston’s skyscrapers some 25 kilometers to the east, and the industrial sprawl of Lowell and Lawrence to the north.But the westerly view before us was a blanket of forest and farmland, lifted by a small mountain here, divided by a tiny highway there-with Fitchburg nowhere to be seen. Hansman pulled out an aeronautical chart and showed Alex where we were-and where Fitchburg Airport lay. But Alex shrugged; a novice could glean no useful information from the chart, because there is no intuitive way to correlate its information with the view out the window. In short, he had no idea which way to go.
Hansman then produced a conventional $800 GPS receiver with graphic display that’s popular among pilots. It depicts a simulated overhead view of the airplane with respect to ground features and radio navigation aids. But Alex only shook his head. I asked what he was thinking, and he told me the symbol-and-number-packed display was “the most confusing thing I have ever seen in my entire life.” This from a kid who has never needed to read the instructions for any of the hundreds of computer and video games he has played.
By this time, the experienced Hansman could make out Fitchburg Airport in the distance, and he pointed it out to Alex. But to the untrained eye a small airport is utterly indistinguishable from the surrounding terrain, and Alex wandered off course as he searched for it. (In fact, even experienced pilots sometimes fail to recognize unfamiliar airports and other landmarks when navigating visually.) Here in our plane, however, we had our secret weapon. Hansman turned to me and asked if I had the Highway in the Sky-like system fired up. I did, and I handed it to him.
Hansman held the GPS-equipped laptop against the instrument panel in front of Alex. There, displayed in bright colors, sat an uncluttered image of the terrain before us. On it were superimposed two parallel lines of columns that receded into the distance, along with a blue cone planted off to the right. The lines of columns defined our current flight path, I explained to Alex, while the cone represented Fitchburg Airport. “Oh, okay,” he said. “So I just need to aim at the cone, right?” With the flair of a video game master homing his X-wing fighter in on the Death Star’s lone vulnerable hatch, Alex immediately banked the plane to bring the cone to the middle of the flight path. We were right on course.