Navigation – After my longest NavEx yet

On the 16 May 2015, I did my longest solo navigation exercise to date. This flight was in preparation for my qualifying cross country in my PPL course of which I expect (weather and acts of god permitting!) to do it in 2 weeks time.

My route that I did was the below:


After weather washing me out for more than 3 weeks, a weather window opened up and managed to get up. This route has the following features: a total distance of approximately 125nm, 2 different airfields (Stapleford and Lydd), 1 controlled airspace clearance, 3 different ATC units and total brakes on to brakes off time of 1hr 50minutes. Doesn’t sound like that much in terms of distance and time but we all start from somewhere and consider 1 hours concentrated flying is approximately the equivalent of 6 hours driving (not hard fact but something I was told whilst in the RAF from my instructors) you can imagine that I felt fairly tired when I came down.

You learn to fly to go places and navigation is what will let you do that. In this day and age where there are tools available that will do all the navigation for you (GPS devices) and particularly in modern aviation liners, there are systems that will control the aircraft entirely in following a navigation route often done via a flight management computer (FMC), the fundamentals are often overlooked. Most flight training organisations and the theory will teach you navigation based off Dead Reckoning (DR). DR has been used for centuries primarily for sea and nautical navigation and as such many of the basics in flying have been inherited from nautical navigation, down to the units of distance.

The fundamentals of navigation are most importantly learned from a book and your instructor. However, there are a number of lessons I have learnt along the way that may make things easier:

  1. Navigation planning (Weather, PLOG and computations)
  2. Cockpit management
  3. Slick communications or radio transmissions (RT)

As you may have seen from prior posts, I have mentioned pre-planning several times and here it is more essential than at any other time. When you’re new to navigation always do the navigation planning couple of nights before and recheck your route the night before. When you get more comfortable, do it the night before. This prior planning is a matter of practice but the most common steps are:

  1. Draw the route on your map and have your PLOG to hand.
  2. Fill in the known bits on your PLOG probably in this order:
    1. Fill in the route names first usually segmented by halfway markers (do not put half way markers on routes of less than 7nm).
    2. Fill in your distances and True Tracks as I tend to calculate these at the same time on the map.
    3. The easiest next steps are True airspeed and Variation as these are fixed for your aircraft and geographical location.
    4. Minimum safety altitude can be calculated by using a general rule of thumb of checking 5nm each side of track and the highest point plus 500ft or 1000ft (add 300ft on top of if the feature is a structure on potential high ground).
    5. Fill in all your relevant ATC frequencies.
    6. Fill in any relevant fuel calculations.
  1. Draw off track 10 degree fan lines (I often do this at stage 2b).
  2. Highlight any features that you expect to be obvious on route on the map (geographical shapes, water bodies, structures etc.)
  3. Finally, Google maps and/or Flight Simulator X are your friend, so use it to practice!

On the day, I wake up 2 hours prior to flight, do the rest of the PLOG using Weather from the F214 (Spot Wind) charts and my flight computer calculates the rest and most importantly eat a solid breakfast!

Cockpit management is a harder one to learn, it is often borne out of practice and organisation. However, a few tips that aid this: keep only your map and your PLOG (on your kneeboard) on your lap while flying. This means you can don’t have to faff with multiple things to find what you’re looking for whilst flying the aircraft. Another tip is when in the cruise keep one hand on the map and control column with the other on the throttle – this allows you to quickly glance at the map whilst still keeping a good lookout.

Comms/RT is a hard language to get used to when you’re new and can be very daunting but is actually made up of relatively few stages: Airfield, circuit, Frequency change, Cruise and re-join comms. This is a simplified view and the book is considerably larger but actually it boils down to saying as least as possible to convey a concise message. My instructor told me “if you don’t know why you’re saying it, don’t say it all”. This works nicely because if you get a basic message across, ATC will ask you for the rest. Remember in the series of flight Communicate comes last before Aviate and Navigate; ATC are there to help you on your way, not for you to do their bidding. You are ultimately responsible for your aircraft safety and any passengers and therefore, 80% of your capacity needs to be dedicated to Aviate and Navigate.

Navigation is hard at first but once you get the process nailed the rest falls into place pretty quickly and each trainee pilot experiences all 3 of the above at some stage.

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