Navigators vs. Pilots

Yes, I know, the title above implies an adversarial relationship between airplane drivers and bubble chasers, but most of the time the two rated specialties were genuinely cooperative. True, pilots were in charge. Called aircraft commanders (ACs) in bombers and tankers, they were also known as pilots or pilots-in-charge. Most navigators (those bubble chasers or radarscope dopes) readily accepted the long-term hierarchy in the sky. That didn't stop the rivalries that developed, or the humorous barbs and jibes between them. Yet in some foreign air forces, the navigator (some times called the plotter) might indeed be the senior officer and aircraft commander. In the USAF, however, pilots ruled. Some navigators wondered why many airplanes carried two pilots, but only one navigator. Navigators just assumed there was a need for two pilots, because there was a requirement to be able to read and write, no single pilot being capable of both. And some pilots said that navigators were lousy statesmen, not even knowing what state their airplane was traversing.

In the Air Force that I knew, from the 50s through the 70s, the general term navigator included a host of flying sub-specialties. We had celestial navigators (not movie stars, but those who guided their aircraft by celestial navigation techniques). We had radar navigators, who were also bombardiers. And we had radar intercept officers, the fellows who guided fighter-interceptor planes to shoot down enemy aircraft and even subsonic missiles. Fellows who fought the electronic battles with enemy radar, ground-based and airborne, were known as electronic countermeasures (ECM) operators, or on B-52s called electronic warfare officer (EWOs). Still others specialized in aircraft performance engineering as were known as flight engineers. As aircraft became equipped with more complex and sophisticated avionics, some navigators became known as systems operators, further specialized as offensive systems operators (OSOs) or defensive systems operators (DSOs). All of these folks were basically navigators. 

Pilots were more simply classified as single engine or multi-engine qualified. Years back they were also known as jet pilots or reciprocal engine types, back when jets were brand new and not universal as they are today. Depending on whether or not they held ratings for instrument flying, back in the old days, some pilots were designated as green card or white card pilots. All are today qualified for instrument flying. And there were some navigators who were also pilots, just as some pilots were navigator-rated. It's all very confusing I know, but these commonalties and differences only added to the usually friendly adversarial relationship between the two groups. And, it has been only in recent times that navigators could command flying organizations. For many decades that was a taboo notion.

Some pilots never seemed to appreciate the demands of some navigators as they guided their airplanes from place to place or homed in on targets for bomb releases. Consider, for example, how ludicrous it seemed to some pilots when the navigator requested a course change of one-half a degree. From the cockpit, where a wide view of the world outside readily revealed that they were headed generally where they should be, to a turning point or a target, pilots could not understand why the navigator asked for a half degree turn left or right. Yet, from the bomb aimer's perspective, a change of one half a degree could mean getting into the right position for weapon release, as opposed to being a mile off the target. One degree translates to one mile at a distance of sixty from the target. That half-degree is indeed important. But some pilots would bark back over the interphone that they couldn't do a half-degree turn. Their compass or gyro indicators were not calibrated in half-degree increments. That forced some navigators to say, "Okay. Then give me three degrees left and then two and a half degree right", when they wanted a half degree left correction. Of course, by the time they got through arguing about the heading change needed, the airplane narrowed the distance between them and the target eight miles every minute. Soon a five-degree change would be needed to correct what a half-degree would have earlier.

Pilots couldn't appreciate the importance of holding the aircraft truly steady, especially when the navigator was observing (shooting) stars to determine position. A manually flown aircraft is not nearly as stable a platform for making celestial observations as the autopilot is, in most cases. Shooting each star takes, on average, two minutes. Three stars were customarily "shot" for each fix. In that time the airplane meanders or wallows quite a bit. Some airplanes, even under autopilot control, fly a horizontal corkscrew pattern through the sky. Others pitch up and down slightly, varying altitude 25, 50 or even 100 feet from the chosen altitude. B-52s were famous for alternately flying one wing low and then back to level, repeatedly. That was due to the use of wing spoilers for roll control, instead of ailerons alone. Even the jet engines conspired to make shooting stars difficult at times, when minor thrust surges accelerated or decelerated the airplane a few knots. These deviations from straight and level flight, at a constant speed, contributed to errors in celestial body observations, which translated into inaccuracies in determining the exact position of the airplane at the time of the "fix".

It often depended on what type of unit the pilots and navigators worked, whether or not they were motivated to cooperate or whether the pilot simply exercised his authority at every segment of the flight. Strategic Air Command (SAC) pilots readily appreciated that their career success depended largely on how effective their navigators and radar bombardiers performed. Crew successes and consistent performance rested on bombing and navigation scores. Hence pilots and navigators worked as a team, both appreciative of the inter-dependency between them. In other outfits, such a transport units, fighter units or others, there were wider gulfs between the rated specialties. That was partly due to the fact that integral crews who stayed together was not always the rule. Pilots didn't know their navigators as well and often mistrusted their abilities and skills. When you had a different navigator each mission, you tended not to place great trust in your bubble chaser. And, Lord knows, many navigators in such outfits had equally little faith or confidence in the airplane drivers, whose skills in instrument flying or coping with inflight problems they questioned.

I can recall, while flying combat mission over Vietnam, that some visiting pilots seldom took the guidance or suggestions of their navigators (reconnaissance system operators). Those strong-willed and supremely self-confident pilots wanted no input from their back seaters. When their back-seater or GIB (guy in back) offered suggestions, like "we ought to turn here, sir" or "time to start the letdown to the target now, sir", they were told to shut up. "Just be quiet. I'll tell you when to turn the cameras ON and OFF," they were instructed. One such pilot, a colonel, gave me that treatment, so I just let him miss the target and explain it to the C.O. when we got back. It pleased me to later learn that he was chewed out royally and reminded that his navigator knew the target area well and should have been listened to. I will admit that there are, and always have been, good and bad pilots, good and bad navigators and even idiots in both groups. There are fewer of them today in the navigator category however. Why? Because there are fewer navigators on duty than there were in my day. Does that mean there are still as many pilot idiots? Naw, of course not.