Aircraft Navigation Cross Country Flight Planning

Learning aircraft navigation the old-fashioned way; with a map and a compass, without relying solely on technology will build your skills and make you a better pilot.

Introduction

With the advent of GPS there seems to be very little real need to learn how to navigate the old-fashioned way – by Deduced Reckoning, with a map, a magnetic compass, and little else. However, the mental discipline required to navigate using the simplest techniques available will stand us in good stead when it comes to commanding an aircraft and handling emergencies.

aircraft navigation, plane
Flying can become an art form when it’s performed consciously and skillfully in total control.

Simplicity

While technology is neither necessarily good nor bad, it can become harmful if we become slaves to it, rather than remain its master. It should also be restated that the goal of commanding an aircraft might only be achieved by a pilot capable of controlling himself first. A useful tip is to simplify things as much as possible by discarding anything that doesn’t demonstrably contribute to the safety or efficiency of a flight.

By distilling everything down to that level, flight safety and efficiency can be simplified down to fundamental principles that guide behavior rather than dictate blind obedience.

Consciousness and Skill

One fundamental principle that simply defines the foundations necessary for anyone to achieve above-average performance in any pursuit is to focus on expanding consciousness and skill. The term consciousness includes proving basic knowledge about everything that affects safety or efficiency, and skill refers to learning how to maintain control in any possible situation.

Like anything else, flying can become an art form when it’s performed consciously and skillfully in total control. Another way to achieve a high level of consciousness and skill is by aiming to sustain an uninterrupted flow of consciousness from the moment you strap in until the moment the aircraft is parked, shut down, and secured.

aircraft navigation, pilot, gps
While technology is neither necessarily good nor bad, it can become harmful if we become slaves to it, rather than remain its master.

Achieving that is not easy, but it is possible, and it’s also surprisingly less tiring than allowing your mind to wander all over the place doing, saying, thinking or even feeling things that aren’t necessary. It’s the equivalent of meditation practiced while focusing on whatever you’re doing, which could be driving, having a conversation, playing sports or gardening. The principle is the same, and the benefits transfer to everything else you do.

To achieve this state, start by clearing the mind of all extraneous thoughts, feelings, and desires, breathing consciously and paying attention to posture. They’ll still be there after you’ve landed, but focusing on them in flight ain’t gonna help you get there. Imagine you’re unloading excess baggage prior to flight, taking only what’s absolutely necessary for the trip.

Deduced Reckoning

Deduced Reckoning, aka Ded Reckoning2, or DR is a very simple concept – if a constant velocity – heading and speed – is maintained from a known point you’ll be able to predict with reasonable accuracy where you’ll be at any given time. To begin navigating we would normally measure a track between two points on a map, calculate the effect of forecast wind on our planned cruise speed, and calculate a planned groundspeed and heading. As we line up on the runway or parallel taxiway, it’s a good idea to check the accuracy of the wet compass in the aircraft.

“Dead reckoning is navigation solely by means of computations based on time, airspeed, distance, and direction. The products derived from these variables, when adjusted by wind speed and velocity, are heading and GS. The predicted heading takes the aircraft along the intended path and the GS establishes the time to arrive at each checkpoint and the destination. Except for flights over water, dead reckoning is usually used with pilotage for cross-country flying.”

flight-study.com2

The precise runway direction is contained in aviation documents, and this should be noted during pre-flight planning so compass accuracy can be verified. Usually, it will be reasonably accurate – but not always – so by doing this we are developing a rigid scientific methodology that applies the principle – Prove all things. Hold fast that which is good.

If the compass is not accurate, it would be necessary to calculate the number of degrees to add or subtract when setting heading on departure. Consider how you would do this before starting the engine because it’s not as simple as it seems when you’re busy preparing for takeoff.

Initially, imagine there are no geographical features available to confirm track, and simply set heading after departure and fly that heading as accurately as possible. After the calculated time to destination, we should be close enough to see it – if the winds were as forecast; heading was held accurately, and actual speed was as calculated.

If any of those factors weren’t right, we’d be off track, and/or either short of our planned destination or past it. While this method may seem a bit like wishful thinking, it’s surprisingly accurate provided each element is proven and the aircraft is flown accurately.

aircraft navigation, maps, compass
In most cases, there are plenty of features along track that can be used for guidance, and they aren’t affected by wind, precession, or compass deviation, so we’d be mad not to make use of them.

Because it’s so simple, it’s natural that people try to complicate things – so we’d feel safer and less likely to get lost – so it will demand great self-discipline to resist. Instead of allowing the mind to wander, focus on precision, beginning with the basics – precise attitude control3, trimming, and directional control.

Once those essentials are established, focus on posture, breathing, and relaxation, aiming to eliminate any unnecessary tension in the body or mind, and thereby maximizing the level of consciousness available for the job at hand. Occasionally we must consider additional factors, such as traffic, airspace, engine and fuel management, and navigation tasks, but we shouldn’t allow ourselves to waste too much time or attention on any single aspect of the primary flight displays or of the flight itself.

While pure DR is the necessary foundation upon which navigation is built, it’s only absolutely necessary when there are no geographical features to confirm track accuracy such as when departing over large bodies of water or featureless terrain. In most cases, there are plenty of features along track that can be used for guidance, and they aren’t affected by wind, precession, or compass deviation, so we’d be mad not to make use of them.

aircraft navigation, small plane
The goal of commanding an aircraft might only be achieved by a pilot capable of controlling themself first.

If all we did was fly from feature to feature, like a bee flying from flower to flower enroute, this would be regarded derisively as track crawling. It might be something you did when you’re low on confidence, visibility, or energy, but you wouldn’t want to make it a habit.

The mature way to navigate is to use whatever means are at our disposal without becoming reliant on them. This means we may use any air navigation facilities and technology in a pinch, including global positioning system (GPS)4, but we should make a habit of using the following technique primarily whenever possible because it’s insurance against an over-reliance on technology, which can, and does, fail.

aircraft navigation, gps
Technology can and does fail so it’s important we know and understand other techniques for navigation which doesn’t make us reliant on technology.

“Satellite Navigation is based on a global network of satellites that transmit radio signals from medium earth orbit. Users of Satellite Navigation are most familiar with the 31 Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites developed and operated by the United States. Three other constellations also provide similar services. Collectively, these constellations and their augmentations are called Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS). The other constellations are GLONASS developed and operated by the Russian Federation, Galileo developed and operated by the European Union, and BeiDou, developed and operated by China. All providers have offered free use of their respective systems to the international community. All providers have developed International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Standards and Recommended Practices to support use of these constellations for aviation.”

faa.gov/about/office_org/headquarters_offices/ato/service_units/techops/navservices/gnss/gps/howitworks

In simple terms, pilots must aim to be the master of technology rather than it’s slave, because that’s when we become passengers, rather than Pilots-in-Command.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) list various air navigation aids HERE1, such as Tactical Air Navigation, Distance Measuring Equipment, Instrument Landing System, Global Navigation Satellite System, Air traffic control systems, Inertial navigation system, Land-based radio beacons and more.

The navigation technique

The following technique has been refined from basic RAAF fixed-wing training in military aircraft and helicopter navigation techniques5 with simplicity and efficiency as the only priority. There are no “nice to have” additions weighing us down, so it will be natural that pilots try and complicate things so they feel more secure, but any additions will prove to be counter-productive in the long run.

helicopter navigation, aircraft navigation
This technique has been refined from basic RAAF fixed-wing training and helicopter navigation techniques

How is it done?

To achieve this focused technique, draw a track on a map, calculate the magnetic direction and ETI (Estimated Time Interval) between points based on simple rules of thumb. For example, if your aircraft cruises at around 60 knots, allow 1 minute per NM, and add a minute every 2,000 ft of climb to cruise altitude. At 120 knots we’d cover 2 nm/minute, at 180 knots, 3 nm per minute, etc. always adding an appropriate time allowance for every 2,000 ft of climb.

While it’s reassuring to accurately calculate the effect of wind on track and ground speed, it’s rarely accurately forecast, and that means it shouldn’t be relied upon.

If you did, you wouldn’t be as focused on flight and navigation accuracy, so it’s preferable to develop an awareness of the effect it will have IF it’s as forecast. For example, if our track is 070 degrees and the wind is forecast to be from the Northwest at 20 knots, then we’d assume we’d have to head a fair bit to the left of track to allow for drift, and we’d expect a faster ground speed.

aircraft navigation, pilot
The mature way to navigate is to use whatever means are at our disposal without becoming reliant on them.

How much we’d have to lay off for drift depends on our airspeed. The faster we fly, the less we’d have to allow, and the effect on ground speed depends on how close wind direction is to either blowing directly behind us, or directly in front.

Conclusion

The idea is to simplify things down to the bare minimum so we have spare capacity to achieve total awareness and control, and constructing a bigger picture perspective of what we’re doing so we stay orientated and don’t get bogged down in the detail.

Reference List:

  1. ‘Navigation Aids’, FAA. Accessed online at https://www.faa.gov/air_traffic/publications/atpubs/aim_html/chap1_section_1.html on Oct 27, 2022.
  2. Dead Reckoning – Aircraft Navigation’, Flight Study. Accessed online at https://www.flight-study.com/2021/05/dead-reckoning.html on Oct 27, 2022.
  3. ‘Attitude Flying: Establishing Control of the Aircraft’s Flight Path’, Steven Daun, American Flyers. Published: Aug 22, 2020. Accessed online at https://americanflyers.com/attitude-flying-establishing-control-of-the-aircrafts-flight-path/ on Oct 27, 2022.
  4. ‘Satellite Navigation – GPS – How It Works’, FAA. Accessed online at https://www.faa.gov/about/office_org/headquarters_offices/ato/service_units/techops/navservices/gnss/gps/howitworks on Oct 27, 2022.
  5. ‘Helicopter Navigation: How do pilots know where they’re going?’, Pilot Institute. Published: April 21, 2022. Accessed online at https://pilotinstitute.com/helicopter-navigation/ on Oct 27, 2022.
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ken johnson

Ken

Ken is a passionate aviator, a professional pilot and flight instructor. He has over 17 years of flight experience across hundreds of aircraft ranging from recreational, aerobatic, historic, commercial and military aircraft, training hundreds of students along the way. Find out more.

Ken has 124 posts and counting. See all posts by Ken

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