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.

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