The Lost Art of Pilotage: Finding Your Way with Visual Cues
By Jason Blair, ATP, CFI-I, MEI-I, FAA Designated Pilot Examiner | October 2016
I know this may sound strange considering all the cool toys we have in our planes,
including GPS systems and iPads, but sometimes a pilot might want to navigate by
looking outside the window.
There are fantastic landmarks out there, that match up with what is found on paper
or digital charts, to allow you to fly from point to point, ending up at a destination.
It is also possible to use these landmarks as a way to avoid getting lost, or even,
to get un-lost!
The skill of navigating using landmarks that you can visually identify and match
up with on your charts is really a skill. A skill that is not exercised is one that
a pilot is less proficient in using. I challenge you on your upcoming flights to
not just trust the GPS and not just follow the magenta line on the iPad. Start looking
outside the window, pick out points and match them up on your VFR navigation charts
to hone your pilotage and dead reckoning skills.
A few tips you can use when working to hone or refresh your skills, or simply to
challenge yourself, include the following:
Think Big When It Comes to Navigation Points
Trying to find the corner of 32nd Avenue and 24th Street from 5000 AGL in the middle
of a city can be pretty tough. But finding the city itself should be easier. When
navigating using VFR pilotage, use bigger points to get a general idea of your aircraft
position. Pick things that are going to stick out from a distance.
Major lakes, cities, expanses of forest, or big rivers are great examples of things
that will always stick out when you over fly them. It is hard not to notice crossing
the Mississippi River when you fly over it at 4000 MSL. This is an example of a
big landmark clue that is not only noticeable, but will be on your charts. If you
took off from central Illinois and were headed west, a 5 or 10-degree course error
isn’t going to cause you to miss crossing this river. When you do cross it, you
have an enroute opportunity to check your course and see if your crossing point
is where you originally intended it to be. If you planned to cross 5 miles north
of a city and you see the city 5 miles north of you instead, it’s time to adjust
your course based on your pilotage. Recognize the deviation of your intended course
to your actual course flown based on reference to these large, then smaller landmarks.
Refine to Smaller Points
Once you have broadly identified the aircraft position, you can now refine yourself
down to smaller points. If you are looking for the quarry that is marked on a chart
3 miles to the north of a town, it will be easier to find the town first, and then
navigate from there to the specific smaller point. If you use larger and more identifiable
points, and then reference them to find a smaller one, you refine your navigation
efforts. The same holds true of airports. A smaller air strip in the middle of a
city may be hard (or impossible) to see from 50 miles away, but if you notice that
a major highway you are flying over along your route goes right past the airport,
use it to follow and navigate until you are able to see the smaller point you are
trying to find.
You can also find points by using larger landmarks to “radiate out from.” There
is no requirement that you must always fly a straight line directly to the point
where you are going. Using landmarks that are more clearly identifiable will, many
times, only add slight percentages of distance to your overall route, but may drastically
increase the ease of navigation along the route when using pilotage.
Rivers, Railroads, Shorelines, and Highways Typically Lead Somewhere
When navigating VFR and using charts, I always try to find major rivers, railroads,
and highways to help me along the way. These all tend to lead somewhere, typically
to a city that uses them as transportation infrastructure. There is no reason a
pilot can’t follow them from above to navigate between cities.
These great visual points can lead a pilot to other points, many times in and around
cities. They can help a pilot identify other more refined points such as water towers,
airports, lakes, or bridges that can also be found on our charts.
Shorelines of big lakes or ocean fronts are not only great visual landmarks to follow,
dotted by cities you can identify, but they are also very scenic!
Big Landmarks Should Never Be Discounted
Where I live in Michigan, if you go east, west, or north, you will run into a great
lake. If you go south, you will cross two major highways (I-94, then I-80) both
running east/west. These are large, distinct landmarks to think about when navigating
around my home area. I am not saying you can’t get lost here, but you probably can’t
get lost by more than 50-100 miles without a very large visual cue appearing. Hopefully
you will make a course correction if you encounter one of these major landmarks
that you weren’t planning to see along your route.
Major landmarks like these exist throughout the United States (and no doubt in other
countries) and can be considered in a broad contemplation of VFR navigation. In
Florida again there is water to the east and west. On the east coast, the Atlantic
Ocean is in one direction and, for much of the area, mountains (the Appalachians)
are to the west. In Colorado the mountains are west and broad open plains are to
the east. You get the picture. Think about what the major landmarks are in the area
where you are flying and consider how they create boundaries that can be significant
cues to whether your navigation efforts are on course.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that flying with reduced visibility or ceilings
lessens the ability of a pilot to see longer distances in order to identify potential
landmarks and to climb to an altitude to remain clear of obstacles. It is prudent
to avoid flying when only basic VFR minimums are present if you will be navigating
using pilotage and dead reckoning. If you do find yourself flying with less than
clear conditions, know that your pilotage will have to become more accurate than
when points can be viewed from greater distances and altitude.
Taking the time to hone your VFR navigation point identification skills in no way
degrades the utility of GPS, VOR, or other ship-mounted navigation systems, or even
the use of moving map displays on EFB devices such as an iPad. These great tools
can be supplemented by making sure your basic navigation skills remain sharp. It
is all too easy to become reliant on programming the “direct to” button and sitting
back in the aircraft until you reach your destination instead of actively working
our navigation skills. The skill of pilotage can be important in the event of a
system failure, or even just a programming error by the pilot.
So before your next flight, dig that old chart out again (or pull it up on your
iPad) and start exploring ‘from the air again’. It might be interesting to see
what’s on the ground first before you match it up on the air while in flight!
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Jason Blair is an active single and multi-engine instructor and FAA Designated Pilot
Examiner with 4,900 hours total time and 2,850 hours instruction given. In his role
as Examiner, over 800 pilot certificates have been issued. He serves on several
FAA/Industry aviation committees and is the past Executive Director of the National
Association of Flight Instructors. He also consults on aviation training and regulatory
efforts for the general aviation industry.
does not provide technical or legal advice, and is not affiliated with companies
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not a full analysis of the matters presented. The information provided may not be
applicable in all situations, and readers should always seek specific advice from
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