Flight of the Navigator Improve Your Navigation Skills as a Flying Companion

by James Williams, FAA Safety Briefing

In the days before “modern” airplanes, any significant aerial navigation was the preserve of trained specialists. These special navigators were highly trained and just as necessary as the pilot to the flight. But as technology and techniques advanced, the role of the navigator faded into the pages of history books. As navigation got easier and other pilot workload factors decreased, the task of navigation was transferred to the pilot.

So what does all this mean to you as a non-pilot flying companion?

The More Things Change …

One of the strongest memories of my early GA experiences was learning to be a navigator of sorts for my dad. My motivation was partially to be helpful, but I admit that it was mostly so I didn’t have to wait for a parent’s answer to the age-old “Are we there yet?” question. I became proficient at operating the Distance Measuring Equipment (DME) radio, and I happily occupied myself by plugging in stations along our route. This practice would tell me not only how far we were from the station, but also how fast we were going and, most importantly, how long it would take to get there.

My DME diversion was primarily useful to my father as a means of keeping me quiet. As I got older and our trips got longer, though, my skills expanded into doing actually useful things like tuning radios and setting up navaids and charts.

This was in a time before GPS, moving maps, or smart anything. The advent of modern avionics and technology has made flying companions potentially much more powerful assets. Let me hasten to assure you that today’s technology has also substantially lowered the learning curve.

Defining the Tools

Modern navigation tools look nothing like their ancestors. They also are quite different from the tools I used as a kid in the 1990s. Gone are the piles of paper, “whiz wheel” circular slide rule “computers,” and other extraneous gizmos. From the flying companion’s point of view, today’s primary tool is the tablet. Apple’s iPad and Google’s Android tablets are great for use in the airplane. One tablet can replace several pounds of charts, books, and pamphlets while also making access to the information infinitely easier.

The next tool is modern aviation applications, or apps. These apps vary in their capabilities so it’s important to know their limitations. What you can do will be dependent on how your airplane is equipped, and what accessories you have. For example, an app may only provide flight planning materials and charts.

You may have access to a lot more information if you have our next pair of tools, Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B) and GPS.

While GPS is a widely used technology, ADS-B might be largely unknown outside the world of aviation geeks. In simple terms, ADS-B is a two-part system (ADS-B In and ADS-B Out) that essentially replaces the legacy transponder systems which help Air Traffic Control (ATC) track aircraft.

What makes ADS-B Out different from traditional radar is that the information it provides to ATC (and other properly equipped aircraft in the area) also includes GPS location data. This location data is more accurate and updates faster than the old radar/transponder data.

ADS-B In receives data from ATC as well as other aircraft in the area. That allows everyone appropriately equipped to see everyone else which, in turn, makes spotting and avoiding traffic much easier (see the Angle of Attack department in this issue for more info). In addition to traffic data, ADS-B In can also provide free weather data. ADS-B can come from either the avionics installed in the aircraft or from standalone boxes or dongles, although the latter does not meet the FAA’s Equip 2020 mandate requirements.

The last tool is modern avionics. We’ve seen several massive advances in avionics in my relatively short aviation experience. In those 20 or so years, aviation has seen the transition from traditional ground-based navigation to GPS, and from dials and gauges to moving maps. We’ve also seen a growing movement from moving maps to full “glass” cockpits being relatively attainable in GA. These modern avionics now offer even more power by allowing connections to external devices like your tablet. With some of these avionics and app combinations, you can edit flight plans and even set standby frequencies. That means you can be a lot more helpful. But where to start your navigation training?

Charting a Course

If you want to help the pilot with navigation duties, the first step is to understand what you’re looking at in a couple general areas: Charts and Weather. A great place to start for charts is the FAA’s Aeronautical Chart User’s Guide.

While rather lengthy, you primarily need to get familiar with the pages dedicated to decoding the massive amount of information baked into aeronautical charts. Pages 25 to 29 are a good place to start if you want to get a quick overview of visual flight rules charts. This section covers how airport, navaids, and airspace are depicted, and what information is where. These are probably your biggest bangs for the buck in terms of providing useful information to the pilot with a minimum time investment.

Pages 73 to 77 cover Instrument Flight Rules en route charts, and pages 96 to 118 are about instrument procedures. Looking over these pages will give you a good idea what you are looking at, whether it’s in paper form or on a tablet.

Start with that foundation and work your way out, depending on what information is most useful. A good exercise is to pull up a chart on your tablet (or download a chart from the website referenced above) and look up something you want to learn more about.

The most important things are generally airport, navaid, and airspace information. Items such as the airport radio frequency, navaid frequencies, or waypoint names are helpful. When you get comfortable with this information, some of these modern setups will even allow you to modify flight plans and upload them to the avionics — a useful skill to acquire as an aid to the pilot.

Whither Weather

Weather is a huge factor in any flight. For this discussion, I will assume you have some kind of live weather feed. The easiest and most familiar place to start is radar. Since everyone is used to looking at radar from the TV, internet, and smartphones, the basic graphics are pretty well understood.

In an aviation context, think of it this way. Light green is probably fine. A little rain is no big deal especially if you’re flying IFR. Dark green is a maybe for IFR, but most likely a no for VFR since visibility is likely to drop off as the rain intensity increases. Yellow is a no-go because you are getting into the kind of weather that, in the best possible circumstance, is going to be very unpleasant for the occupants of a small aircraft. Trust me on this point: even the most solid GA aircraft starts to feel like a cardboard canoe trying to navigate white water rapids as that intensity picks up.

Red areas are a hard no. Don’t even think about it. Take the previous example and multiply it by 100. If you see magenta, stay away, very far away — we’re talking several counties away.

A radar data screen shot from a tablet. This information is very helpful, but should only be used strategically — not tactically.

Radar is a great tool for avoiding the kind of weather that can get you into trouble, but it has some limitations. The radar feed you see in most GA airplanes is a composite of many different radar systems (the same is true of most other radar you see on the internet or TV).

In an airplane, this information is at least five to seven minutes old, maybe as much as 15 minutes old. This is why it’s important to avoid any larger cells on the radar by a significant margin, and to pay attention to the trends: which way is the weather heading? Is it getting worse, or better? The bottom line is that radar information in a light GA airplane should be used in a strategic way (give weather a wide berth), not as a tactical tool for picking your way through wicked weather.

The next level of information is the FAA METAR/TAF info. METAR is a fancy word for what the weather is within the last hour. TAFs are Terminal Area Forecasts, basically just a short-term forecast for the immediate vicinity of the airport.

There is a lot of information in these reports, but there are really only a few pieces most critical for the flying pilot, when you boil it down: Wind, and Ceiling and Visibility. For a more in-depth examination of these factors please see “I’ve Got Weather (Now What Do I Do with It?)” in the March/April 2015 issue of FAA Safety Briefing: bit.ly/2r08NZN (PDF download).

Don’t worry about the weather code. Most apps will decode METARs and TAFs for you, and many allow you to access the reports by simply tapping on the airport name. You can monitor conditions at your destination, as well as at possible alternate airports along the route. This is especially important if you are encountering adverse weather that demands a diversion.

METAR information is critical for monitoring current conditions at an airport.

Having a good idea of nearby airports and their weather conditions, will allow you to assist the pilot as things get busy.

It’s also wise to talk to your pilot about his/her personal minimums before the flight, so you can help him or her evaluate conditions and make a sound go/no-go decision.

Preflight Practice

So how do you build these skills when you’re not in the airplane? As a companion, you probably don’t have the same access to actual seat time that a pilot does. But you can find plenty of online resources. From informative YouTube videos, to FAQ-packed manufacturer sites, to third-party sites that offer reviews, tips, and tricks, the Internet is a great information source for learning the ins and outs of any particular system.

It’s also important to know your equipment and how it works. This means everything from making setting adjustments on the tablet to hooking up any required external devices. The latter is much easier these days, as most of the connections are now wireless, but you still have to know how to establish those connections.

A great way to practice is to use PC-based flight simulation. Some apps support connections to popular flight simulators, which allow you to hone and test your skills from the comfort of home. If you’re going to be regularly flying with a specific pilot, you might also suggest a couple of sim sessions to get everyone on the same page.

Some apps allow users to pull up chart information by simply tapping on the item in question.

In the end, improving your navigator skills helps you understand more of what’s going on during the flight, with the added benefit of reducing the pilot’s workload. It may seem daunting at first, but start with the basics suggested here and take it one step at a time. From that foundation, you can continue to build.

Take it from me: developing your navigation know-how is a win-win situation for everyone.

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 March/April 2018 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine.
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FAA Safety Team

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