navigation ... no easy answers (UK)

Dick Flute's recommendations for easier and better navigation.
reproduced from GASCO

Have you ever got lost even if only slightly? ... (Sorry, I should know better as we pilots never ever get lost do we?). I'll start again ... have you ever been temporarily uncertain of your position? If you can honestly answer "No" to this question then I'll bet a penny to a pound you need to get out and about more and consider leaving the circuit! Some pilots never leave the local area although in my opinion the whole of southern England, or Wales or Scotland for example can or perhaps should be regarded as a `local' area.

Smaller cities like Oxford with it's very distinctive University bang in the centre can provide ideal waypoints but there's a lot of restricted airspace nearby to be wary of

I was never entirely happy with the way navigation was taught when undergoing the PPL syllabus. It seemed so very, very over-complicated ... surely there was an easier way? Today of course, (although it's sensibly still not approved as a primary navigation device), many dig deep into already depleted pockets and buy a GPS. Quite frankly I think that pretty much the whole approach to the subject of back to basics navigation in many flying schools let alone the PPL syllabus leaves a lot to be desired. I approach navigation as very much part and parcel of the sheer fun and enjoyment of flying small aeroplanes and you certainly won't find me getting scorch marks on my fingers from a quickly revolving 'Dalton' type spin-wheel when in flight.

A large group of lakes like these manmade examples spread east to south-east of Kemble airfield make brilliant navigation features, visible when miles away (All photographs by Dick Flute.)

It's a huge problem area to say the least, much exacerbated perhaps by junior flight instructors yearning for airline jobs where the basics of navigation by sight, or drawing lines on charts, have really no place at all in their thinking about navigation. They know full well they will have copulating INS systems, cohabiting GPS, VOR etc, etc. Why should they care about the benefits of the Didcot power station, the Humber estuary, the Malvern Hills or the A1M/M62 interchange as primary navigation aids? In England and Wales, (Scotland can pose different problems of course), surely one of the big benefits is our abundance of strong features that can be used as natural waypoints whenever possible, even if it means flying off a straight line track to do so. The real problem very often is recognising these features but why not plan flights to find them deliberately?

The few remaining large industrial sites in the UK, like the Port Talbot steel works in South Wales, make excellent VFR waypoints.

Aerial Navigation isn't easy

The history of aerial navigation is a bewildering subject at best. How on earth did Amy Johnson manage to fly to Australia? ... she could barely be regarded as even a semi-competent pilot when she embarked on that fantastic voyage. But she didn't have areas of controlled airspace to contend with of course. It would seem that basically Amy took the attitude that if you fly south from Paris you'll eventually reach the Med hopefully near Marseilles, that sort of stuff. This simple approach to navigation can often still apply today and I still try to use it whenever possible although she did sometimes get a bit lost trying to find her intended landing ground. I certainly know about this problem!

Leeds Castle in Kent near Maidstone is hard to beat, being in the middle of a lake, but it's best if you already knew of this feature.

On the other hand, at round about the same point in history, Francis Chichester was embarking on a project to fly a floatplane DH Moth from New Zealand to Australia which required incredibly accurate navigation using a sextant to get sun bearings. This is akin to proving that bumble-bees can fly ... although it can be proved mathematically that they can't! Surely nobody can fly a DH Moth and at the same time take accurate bearings using a sextant? Not only did he have to find two small islands, his compass failed whilst en route. His first leg to Norfolk Island took 5hr 50min and to the tiny Lord Howe Island 7hr 40min and all across a featureless ocean. He developed his own method for navigating by the sun and after his Nautical Almanac became time expired due to other very serious problems en route he calculated and wrote his own.

In the 1920s and early 1930s Alan Cobham was pioneering Empire airline routes and finding fuel dumps in the middle of `nowhere' in Africa for example without, it seems, any big problems at all. How on earth did he achieve that?

When you can combine two, three, four or more distinctive features like the coast plus large river estuary, railway viaduct AND a town with two road bridges, in this case Berwick-upon-Tweed, you've usually really got it cracked! Nothing remotely similar exists in this entire region. But would you know this?

In the 1930s many RAF aircraft made forced landings after embarking on navigation exercises, unable to find their way home. At the same time commercial airlines were running pretty much scheduled services around the UK and throughout Europe in often very marginal weather, and with a high degree of safety. The airlines in those days believed that learning the route in precise detail visually was if anything more important than simply relying on the early radio navigation aids.

The Learning Curve

I have flown with some flying instructors who quite frankly can't navigate unless they're playing with all the knobs and buttons on the centre of the instrument panel. Instructors who, it seems, probably couldn't distinguish Aylesbury from Zeals if their life depended on it. Surely this is no way to go about flying little aeroplanes VFR? Flying at fairly low altitudes must be the real reason and ultimate attraction for most pilots wishing to fly, you get to see all the sights and really appreciate the immense privilege of being a pilot. It therefore follows that a systematic process of deliberately planning flights to increase your basic knowledge of the terrain and the valuable waypoints is surely a very sensible way to proceed. Advice gleaned from older pilots always seems worthwhile, like always look towards the horizon; ranges of hills, let alone mountains, can easily give valuable clues to your whereabouts providing of course you've taken the time and trouble to know a bit about where these are and what they might look like.

Prisons can also provide first-class waypoints. Foston Hall is alongside and south of the A50 in Derbyshire, making it very useful ...except there's another prison about two miles west on the north side of the A50. Here again local knowledge, gained perhaps by regularly driving along the A50 even though you may live a long distance away, is often essential to avoid confusion

A coastline has long been a favourite navigation feature to follow. But here again attention to detail is invariably needed today as restricted airspace will probably be encountered sooner or later which requires avoidance and/or permission to transit. As a general rule the further you fly inland the harder navigation becomes and fixing easily identified waypoints becomes a distinct priority. Taking care to study charts to make sure that similar features don't exist nearby is part and parcel of this. Here again major features on the chart like power stations and disused airfields often need to be treated with care unless you are already very familiar with the region. This is especially so in poor visibility. I can testify to making a few bloomers in this regard when utterly convinced I was dead on track. For example a helpful pilot once told me to look out for the cooling towers, as the aerodrome was just beyond. What he didn't I say or realise was that two sets of cooling towers could be seen from the suggested waypoint and, at the time I was flying, the nearest and most obvious were completely obscured by a very heavy rain shower!

A major feature like this in the East Anglian Fens, especially in these murky conditions, might seem very appealing and obvious on the chart. In fact 1 can't now remember where this was exactly but localised flooding made it look ten times more significant than it was on the chart

Fortunately I had taken the precaution of asking a major regional airport to provide a flight information service and the controller very sensibly and politely asked me to verify my position.... as he could see I seemed intent on busting his airspace. The fact of the matter was I didn't know where I was at all, although utterly convinced I did. I had pretty much given up on the chart, could see the wrong cooling towers and was heading straight for them. Using VOR and DME, which is now part of the JAA PPL syllabus, can often confirm or disprove your provisional position fix.

A huge river estuary such as the Tay really can't be beaten. This shot was taken near Erroll ' airfield, now used mainly for parachuting well inland from the coast. But what a feature!


I suppose the real point I'm trying to make is that surely we should all be taught to understand and take advantage of every navigation method or device available. Obviously nothing can beat looking down, recognising unique features and knowing from experience exactly where we are. In real life that's not likely to happen especially when flying well away from home territory. For the PPL is this problem being properly addressed in a practical and sensible manner?