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Does Anyone Remember What V-O-R Stands For?

by H. Dean Chamberlain
Reprinted with permission from FAA Aviation News

One of the challenges I enjoy about the job I have is trying to find creative story ideas that meet an FAA safety objective while still being of interest to you, our readers. Sometimes, I wish I could publish new aircraft- type articles that are not only fun, but normally very colorful. New aircraft also make for great layouts. And like new babies, just about everyone in aviation likes a new aircraft. But, being an FAA safety publication, we try very hard to avoid commercial product discussions since we don't want to imply any type of commercial endorsement. Sometimes, we highlight new products because of their impact on aviation; such as the new very-light jets and the special operational and training issues the new jets pose and the proliferation of glass cockpits in today's smaller general aviation aircraft.

This article, I am sad to say lacks the colorful potential of a new jet or even a new, fast, piston-powered aircraft with its glass cockpit, but I think the topic is important and will become more important in the future. Simply put, does anyone remember what V-O- R stands for these days? Recently, I have been flying in several different aircraft and have been reviewing material for my first flight in a new Cessna 182 with the Garmin 1000' flat panel display. What makes all of this interesting or a challenge is that each of the aircraft had a different navigation system in it. Add in the training information for the new Garmin 1000', and I hope you can start to see the training and safety issues involved. I miss the 'good ole days' when a VOR was a VOR. If you knew how to turn one on, you could pretty much figure out how to operate it. The greatest challenge was remembering to properly identify the VOR site you were receiving to make sure it was functioning. But if you had seen one omni bearing selector dial, you had pretty much seen them all.

Even when area navigation (RNAV) came along and you could 'move' a VOR electronically to another location within the appropriate transmission range to make it easier to use, VOR was still easy to use. Then along came newer navigation systems including the newest navigation system based upon satellites. That system, known in the United States as GPS, changed the way most of us now navigate. But in trying to master GPS have we forgotten how to navigate using the old VOR system? Does anyone still remember what V-O-R stands for?

I don't know how many recently certificated pilots know that a very high frequency omni range system can be abbreviated VOR, but as I was bouncing between aircraft recently, I realized that there is more to flying from point A to point B than hitting GPS Direct. I was amazed at how comfortable I had become looking at a moving map and going direct to a GPS waypoint or airport.

What brought this home was my attempt to do some VOR tracking and holding. I was in a Cessna 172 with a multi-function display (MFD) and a GPS unit different than the one I normally operate. The set up was also different than my own old aircraft. As I turned to intercept the VOR airway, I kept waiting for the needle in the course deviation indicator (CDI) to start drifting towards the center. It didn't. Now it had been a while since I did any VOR tracking, but I knew I couldn't have forgotten how to track an airway. As I started reviewing how I had set up the VOR, and how I had identified the right station and its proper frequency, the proverbial light came on, pun intended. I realized the GPS/Nav switch still showed I was navigating on GPS. As soon as I switched to NAV, the CDI needle started to center and life was good. Although I was flying in good weather conditions, I wondered what such a simple error might have been like if I was departing in instrument conditions and had to depend upon the VOR immediately after takeoff. In reviewing the situation, I realized why I had missed the lighted switch. In my own aircraft, although the installation has the required switching unit, the GPS unit has its own dedicated CDI, and the VOR/ILS system has its own CDI. No switching is involved. The only switching needed is when I put the GPS on hold or to arm the approach mode. Plus, in the C-172 I was flying, the navigation mode indicator light was in a different location on the instrument panel than in my aircraft, which took it out of my normal scan.

Adding to my switching error was the fact that most GPS units operate differently. When you factor in all of the various opportunities to set up something wrong in today's aircraft, the learning curve becomes steeper as one bounces from one aircraft to another.

Then as I was watching my flight progress on the MFD as I flew from one intersection to another, every time I changed VOR frequencies my hand kept drifting to the GPS unit wanting to key in GPS Direct. Forget, entering a GPS flight route, I just wanted to hit GPS Direct, check the bearing and distance to the waypoint, and turn to that heading. But I knew if I did that, I would never keep proficient tracking VORs. The good thing is that the MFD allowed me to grade myself on my holding patterns and while tracking the airways.

I think one of the best things about using a GPS with moving map is how it helps you maintain situational awareness. As long as the GPS is working, you not only can see where you are, but in case of an emergency, it helps you identify and locate the nearest airport, VOR, or other waypoint you might need or want. Gone are the days when you had to mentally visualize your in-flight location based upon one or two navigation aids if you did not have distance-measuring equipment onboard. For those pilots who use to fly or maybe still do fly with one VOR, they are my heroes. Being able to select, identify, and track one VOR while doing crosschecks by tuning in another VOR must have been a challenge in instrument conditions. Add in a little turbulence and the workload must have been tremendous. Then when many aircraft came equipped with a second navigation system, life became much easier. Now with GPS and moving maps, life has become even easier. The recent addition of large, flat-panel displays with more information then the average pilot may ever want in your typical four-passenger family airplane has not only simplified flying, but it may have created its own unique challenge.

But now, according to some of the FAA's safety inspectors I have talked to, we have a more interesting challenge then just flying the airplane. The first is how to train rental pilots and those who fly more than one technically advanced aircraft how to safely operate the different GPS systems installed in those aircraft, and how they can maintain proficiency with all of the systems they may encounter when renting different airplanes. The second issue is what safety issues, if any, are involved when a new pilot who has only flown the new, technically advanced flat-panel equipped aircraft moves from that technically advanced aircraft back to an older aircraft with the traditional 'steam gauges' and no moving map. The final question is what happens when the new systems fail. Will these technically advanced pilots be able to fly partial panel procedures instrument conditions with only three or four 'old style' instruments?

Failure is a condition most pilots don't like to think about, but as one FAA aviation safety inspector asked recently while telling the story about when he was flying into New York's Kennedy airport and the approach radar failed, 'Do you remember the required air traffic calls and procedures when you are no longer in radar contact?' He said most pilots have become so used to flying in a radar environment that when there is a radar failure, many pilots don't remember how to function in a non-radar environment.

If you are an instrument-rated pilot, other than when you took your instrument check ride, when was the last time you thought about the rules for a loss of communication situation in instrument conditions or the en route altitude rules?

If you add in the potential of flying in a full glass-cockpit when you have a total electrical failure, are you prepared to fly with your 30-minute backup battery while using your emergency steam gauge instruments? Such a situation gives new meaning to flying partial panel. Are you proficient enough to do it?

If you bounce from one type of aircraft to another, can you successfully fly the aircraft in instrument conditions while dealing with a serious system failure? If not, you may want to schedule some instructional time with your local certificated flight instructor once you ensure he or she is qualified, current, and proficient in the use of the aircraft and its avionics systems. If the instructor cannot explain how all of the avionics equipment operates including how to program and operate the GPS unit, you may want to find one who can. You may also want to check out the equipment manufacturer's Internet web site to see if the manufacturer offers a computer-based GPS simulator to practice using before the flight hour meter starts ticking. But learning how to operate the newest navigational systems and flat-panel displays in today's aircraft is only one of the challenges facing today's pilots.

The other challenge is can you still spell V-O-R if you have one onboard. Can you?