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Where the Heck Are We?

Understanding the Lost Art of Aerial Navigation

By James Williams

There are a couple of things in life that bother me in ways that are completely out of proportion to how important they actually are. First, is the calculation of a tip at a restaurant — an issue that is admittedly outside the scope of this magazine. Second is our general sense of direction, or lack thereof. This one is very much a relevant topic, as it is a core skill for pilots. Our technology-enabled life-style appears to have exacerbated this deficiency.

The Magenta Haze

As the saying goes, a blessing can also be a curse. In my experience, the magnitude of the blessing also holds true for the curse. The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a prime example of that motto. GPS has revolutionized countless industries, including those that rely on navigation technology. Across all modes of transportation, GPS moved navigation from a mental exercise of some complexity to a purely push-button affair. In aviation, the magenta line has blotted out virtually every other navigation method. Yes, GPS makes navigation very easy and very accurate, but some (including me) fret about the curse it inflicts on “children of the magenta line” — pilots whose total reliance on GPS robs them of situational awareness.

Here's how the curse of the magenta line plays out in the simpler example of a car. GPS-based navigation, whether built-in or phone-based, has become fairly ubiquitous. Many people no longer drive anywhere (even locally) without GPS guidance. In my neighborhood, there are several exits that lead to different roads and different basic directions. The direction I’m taking determines which exit I use. Common sense? Yes — but I’ve noticed that many people now follow the GPS guidance even if it’s not the most efficient route. Since the system automatically plots your location, it’s easy to become complacent and not worry about where exactly you are.

GPS-enabled loss of situational awareness might not sound like a big deal, but knowing where you are without total reliance on the machine is an important skill — especially for aviation.

Where to Start?

magnetic compass

Let’s do a quick roundup on the navigation skills and tools we might be neglecting because of homage to the magenta deity.

First is pilotage. This simple and basic method relies on comparing the landmarks and features you see on a chart with what you see from the air. Pilotage is a skill that can be scaled for the task at hand. Depending on the distance between your checkpoints and the visibility, you might simply fly from one to the next. In other cases, though, you might combine pilotage with the next basic skill, dead reckoning.

Dead reckoning is a skill imported from nautical navigation. It involves navigating by flying predetermined headings at a predetermined speed for a predetermined time. Dead reckoning was an important skill in the nautical world because crossing large bodies of water required operating without any visual reference to land. On long voyages, a captain’s ability to dead reckon could literally be the difference between life and death for his crew and his vessel.

Even with GPS, I contend that it’s both useful and important for pilots to have a basic working knowledge of these foundational skills.

VOR ground station

Tools of the Trade

Now let’s talk about the tools of navigation. In the dark days before GPS became the sole navigation method for pretty much everybody, we had things called Navaids. These included VORs (Very High Frequency Omnidirectional Range) and non-directional beacons (NDBs).

VORs are the more common and useful of the two radio-based Navaids. VORs allow you to track in a specific direction to the station and, if equipped with Distance Measuring Equipment (DME), can also tell you how far you are from the station.

NDBs are used in Automatic Direction Finders (ADFs). NDBs are essentially nothing more than radio transmitters that the ADF can point to. Even some commercial AM radio stations can function as ad-hoc NDBs.

The 800-pound gorilla of navigation, of course, is GPS. As you probably know, GPS uses a network of satellites to pinpoint your location anywhere on the globe. GPS deserves every bit of praise it receives, but as discussed previously, its dark side is that it can tempt pilots into complacency and a potentially dangerous loss of situational awareness.


Leveling the Ledger

Think of this collection of navigation skills and tools we’ve discussed as a collection, each with its own assets and liabilities. The balance sheet below offers a quick summary.

navigation skills

Out in the World

No method of navigation is perfect, even if GPS seems pretty close. The most obvious implication from the “balance sheet,” though, is that it’s not wise to rely on any single method of navigation. So I contend that mastering the “basics” of today’s navigation means developing, and maintaining, a working knowledge of each navigational tool.

Let’s start with pilotage and dead reckoning. Pilotage is very fundamental and, for those flying primarily for pleasure, it’s a great way to reconnect with the “flight-seeing” benefits that might have attracted you to aviation in the first place. Make it a point to practice pilotage on a regular basis. Even better, practice pilotage with the vanishing art of dead reckoning. It can be very satisfying to find that you really can get from point A to point B within three minutes of ETA, with nary a glance at the moving map’s magenta line.

It’s also a good idea to keep up your skills using VOR (and, if you still have it, ADF) navigation. Don’t give your installed VOR/ADF equipment a free ride! Even if you use GPS as your primary source of navigation, set useful frequencies in the VOR/ADF boxes, and use them to cross-check the accuracy of GPS.

Before you roll your eyes about using “ancient” tools to cross-check GPS, remember that GPS does have weaknesses and even failures. I have personally experienced a GPS signal loss, which is not uncommon since GPS is a fairly weak signal. That makes it easy to jam or spoof, even accidently. While the FCC works hard to separate those frequencies from potential threats, the exponential growth of wireless communication makes it difficult to do so. There is also the chance of failure in your GPS antenna or hardware.


Using multiple navigation tools and skills also counteracts the GPS-induced loss of situational awareness, because it keeps you actively engaged in the flight. Rather than simply following the magenta line after takeoff, you actually have to look outside for pilotage, to reflect on where you are for dead reckoning, and to select and change frequencies when using VOR/ADF. This practice does add a bit of workload — especially if you are out of practice — but you can still use it in a less busy phase of flight. So look for opportunities to work basic navigational skill practice into normal flights. Practice these skills so that they will be ready and waiting should you actually need to use them sometime.

You’ll be a better pilot — and that’s what back to basics is all about.

Learn More

Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge - Chapter 16: Navigation;

“Navigation Know-How” – FAA Safety Briefing- November December 2017, p 18;

Instrument Flying Handbook;

James Williams is FAA Safety Briefing’s associate editor and photo editor. He is also a pilot and ground instructor.