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.
An ADF instrument and receiver.
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.
A GPS-based Nav/Com radio.
Yes, GPS makes navigation very easy and very accurate, but some fret about the curse it inflicts on “children of the magenta line” — pilots whose total reliance on GPS robs them 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.
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.
Hardware like antennas can be a failure point for any external navigation system.
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.
James Williams is FAA Safety Briefing’s associate editor and photo editor. He is also a pilot and ground instructor.
This article was originally published in the January/February 2018 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine.