How DMA and IBM Saved Navigation

© 1996 John H. Harden, Jr.


This is the story of the blank maps – the blank maps intentionally made so by the Defense Mapping Agency – and of the Navigators who used them.  It is also an instructive tale of redemption.  Many precise facts are lost to history.  So, it is for you, discerning reader, to resolve the parts of this story that are true from those that are truly apocryphal.

After Creation, and while the World was freshly born, the early maps were empty – so very empty because no one knew what was out there.  They called this overwhelming expanse Terra Incognita, where lurked the font of all anxiety in that time, the Edge of the World.  As explorers explored, the Good Cartographers, modest enough in number, filled these blank areas with the four winds, compass roses, elegant cartouches, and the most lovely mermaids; while the Wayward Cartographers, fewer in number but noisy, chose instead to portray the most fulsome collection of sea serpents, monsters, and vague terrain imaginings.

Jonathan Swift observed what was going on:
So, geographers, in Afric maps,
With savage picture fill their gaps,
And o’er unhabitable downs
Place elephants for want of towns.


Cartographic life was simpler then, though they knew it not.

As we learned more of the mapped world, Good Cartographers added the true details little by little, then more and more…until inevitably there were too many details.  Thus, they discovered a new truth known as Too Much of a Good Thing.  The Good Cartographers, with great reluctance after such great devotion, had to start leaving things out.  As you might expect, the first victims were the Little Towns, the ones you and I were born in, those little spots that never bothered anyone but warmed our hearts.   The Names of Places surrendered next, then the pointy things in the sky, later known as Obstructions.

The imprudent conduct of a few Ruffian "Navigators" (so called) hastened this unfortunate trend to its certain and logical extreme.

At that time, Navigator training took place in the clear skies above a flat span of land known as Texas.  Night Celestial – finding the way with heavenly bodies – measured the true mettle of a Navigator and precipitated the ruin of those lesser.  The Holy Grail of Night Celestial was the perfectly spaced Three Star Fix.  No Navigator could be lost with a Three Star Fix.  That was intuitively self-evident and accepted by all including that most querulous of instructors, First Lieutenant Murphy S. Gyro.

During this nocturnal phase, there came upon the clear skies of Texas an extended streak of bad weather named Broken Overcast.  Flush from previous success in Day Map Reading, the lazy but enterprising Ruffians yielded to temptation.  They glanced out the window and acquired a dishonest line of position from the urban lights below.  Quickly perfected and shared, the minor art form spread to all students and became known as “Dubhe, Deneb, and Dallas,” the classic aviation expression that shamed all Navigators to follow.

Clearly, something had to be done to save the soul of navigation.

The awesome responsibility for The Salvation of Navigation fell to the Defense Mapping Agency.  Of this necessity was born the Intentionally Blank Map (IBM), an endearing cognomen granted by the Good Cartographers.  The IBM was simplicity itself, being little more than printed lines of latitude and longitude on blank paper sprinkled with a modicum of other imaginary things.  The earth and all upon it simply fell off the map.  Few knew that DMA officially named the IBM the Jet Navigation Chart Universal, or JNU.  The Wayward Cartographers, whose extinction was now assured, derisively called it the Earth Chart Not, or ECN, but no one paid attention to this.

IBM had an immediate, profound effect, as intended.  Those incorrigible Ruffians, now completely dysfunctional, tore their flight suits in frustration, spewing lamentations and justifications before departing.  The remaining others, duly chastened, embraced the impartial discipline of the IBM, and quickly mended their errant navigational ways.

The IBM endured for many years.  In those years, the worthy art and science of navigation became increasingly honorable even as Navigators became exceedingly professional in steering aircraft over their latter day Terra Incognita, the Great White Unknown.

In the present age, the Defense Mapping Agency conceded the futility of the IBM and make it no longer.

Now, faithful reader, you finally understand, through the evolutionary imperative of Natural Selective Indifference, how Navigators once again came to be trusted. 


May 20, 1996