Ground-Based Navigation (Part 1)

Advances in navigational radio receivers installed in aircraft, the development of aeronautical charts that show the exact location of ground transmitting stations and their frequencies, along with refined flight deck instrumentation make it possible for pilots to navigate with precision to almost any point desired. Although precision in navigation is obtainable through the proper use of this equipment, beginning pilots should use this equipment to supplement navigation by visual reference to the ground (pilotage). This method provides the pilot with an effective safeguard against disorientation in the event of radio malfunction.

There are three radio navigation systems available for use for VFR navigation. These are:
  • VHF Omnidirectional Range (VOR)
  • Nondirectional Radio Beacon (NDB)
  • Global Positioning System (GPS)

Very High Frequency (VHF) Omnidirectional Range (VOR)

The VOR system is present in three slightly different navigation aids (NAVAIDs): VOR, VOR/distance measuring equipment (DME)(discussed in a later section), and VORTAC. By itself it is known as a VOR, and it provides magnetic bearing information to and from the station. When DME is also installed with a VOR, the NAVAID is referred to as a VOR/DME. When military tactical air navigation (TACAN) equipment is installed with a VOR, the NAVAID is known as a VORTAC. DME is always an integral part of a VORTAC. Regardless of the type of NAVAID utilized (VOR, VOR/DME, or VORTAC), the VOR indicator behaves the same. Unless otherwise noted in this section, VOR, VOR/DME, and VORTAC NAVAIDs are all referred to hereafter as VORs.

The prefix “omni-” means all, and an omnidirectional range is a VHF radio transmitting ground station that projects straight line courses (radials) from the station in all directions. From a top view, it can be visualized as being similar to the spokes from the hub of a wheel. The distance VOR radials are projected depends upon the power output of the transmitter.

The course or radials projected from the station are referenced to MN. Therefore, a radial is defined as a line of magnetic bearing extending outward from the VOR station. Radials are identified by numbers beginning with 001, which is 1° east of MN and progress in sequence through all the degrees of a circle until reaching 360. To aid in orientation, a compass rose reference to magnetic north is superimposed on aeronautical charts at the station location.

VOR ground stations transmit within a VHF frequency band of 108.0–117.95 MHz. Because the equipment is VHF, the signals transmitted are subject to line-of-sight restrictions. Therefore, its range varies in direct proportion to the altitude of receiving equipment. Generally, the reception range of the signals at an altitude of 1,000 feet above ground level (AGL) is about 40 to 45 miles. This distance increases with altitude. [Figure 1]

Aircraft Ground-Based Navigation
Figure 1. VHF transmissions follow a line-of-sight course

VORs and VORTACs are classed according to operational use. There are three classes:
  • T (Terminal)
  • L (Low altitude)
  • H (High altitude)

The normal useful range for the various classes is shown in the following table:

Normal Usable Altitudes and Radius Distances
T12,000 and below25
LBelow 18,00040
HBelow 14,50040
HWithin the conterminous 48 states only, between 14,500 and 17,899100
H18,000-FL 450130
HFL 450- 60,000100

The useful range of certain facilities may be less than 50 miles. For further information concerning these restrictions, refer to the Communication/NAVAID Remarks in the Chart Supplement U.S.

The accuracy of course alignment of VOR radials is considered to be excellent. It is generally within plus or minus 1°. However, certain parts of the VOR receiver equipment deteriorate, affecting its accuracy. This is particularly true at great distances from the VOR station. The best assurance of maintaining an accurate VOR receiver is periodic checks and calibrations. VOR accuracy checks are not a regulatory requirement for VFR flight. However, to assure accuracy of the equipment, these checks should be accomplished quite frequently and a complete calibration should be performed each year. The following means are provided for pilots to check VOR accuracy:
  • FAA VOR test facility (VOT)
  • Certified airborne checkpoints
  • Certified ground checkpoints located on airport surfaces

If an aircraft has two VOR receivers installed, a dual VOR receiver check can be made. To accomplish the dual receiver check, a pilot must tune both VOR receivers to the same VOR ground facility. The maximum permissible variation between the two indicated bearings is 4°. A list of the airborne and ground checkpoints is published in the Chart Supplement U.S.

Basically, these checks consist of verifying that the VOR radials the aircraft equipment receives are aligned with the radials the station transmits. There are not specific tolerances in VOR checks required for VFR flight. But as a guide to assure acceptable accuracy, the required IFR tolerances can be used—±4° for ground checks and ±6° for airborne checks. These checks can be performed by the pilot.

The VOR transmitting station can be positively identified by its Morse code identification or by a recorded voice identification that states the name of the station followed by “VOR.” Many FSSs transmit voice messages on the same frequency that the VOR operates. Voice transmissions should not be relied upon to identify stations because many FSSs remotely transmit over several omniranges that have names different from that of the transmitting FSS. If the VOR is out of service for maintenance, the coded identification is removed and not transmitted. This serves to alert pilots that this station should not be used for navigation. VOR receivers are designed with an alarm flag to indicate when signal strength is inadequate to operate the navigational equipment. This happens if the aircraft is too far from the VOR or the aircraft is too low and, therefore, is out of the line of sight of the transmitting signals.

Using the VOR

In review, for VOR radio navigation, there are two components required: ground transmitter and aircraft receiving equipment. The ground transmitter is located at a specific position on the ground and transmits on an assigned frequency. The aircraft equipment includes a receiver with a tuning device and a VOR or omninavigation instrument. The navigation instrument could be a course deviation indicator (CDI), horizontal situation indicator (HSI), or a radio magnetic indicator (RMI). Each of these instruments indicates the course to the tuned VOR.

Course Deviation Indicator (CDI)

The CDI is found in most training aircraft. It consists of an omnibearing selector (OBS) sometimes referred to as the course selector, a CDI needle (left-right needle), and a TO/FROM indicator.

The course selector is an azimuth dial that can be rotated to select a desired radial or to determine the radial over which the aircraft is flying. In addition, the magnetic course “TO” or “FROM” the station can be determined.

When the course selector is rotated, it moves the CDI or needle to indicate the position of the radial relative to the aircraft. If the course selector is rotated until the deviation needle is centered, the radial (magnetic course “FROM” the station) or its reciprocal (magnetic course “TO” the station) can be determined. The course deviation needle also moves to the right or left if the aircraft is flown or drifting away from the radial which is set in the course selector.

By centering the needle, the course selector indicates either the course “FROM” the station or the course “TO” the station. If the flag displays a “TO,” the course shown on the course selector must be flown to the station. [Figure 2] If “FROM” is displayed and the course shown is followed, the aircraft is flown away from the station.

Aircraft Ground-Based Navigation
Figure 2. VOR indicator

Horizontal Situation Indicator

The HSI is a direction indicator that uses the output from a flux valve to drive the compass card. The HSI [Figure 3] combines the magnetic compass with navigation signals and a glideslope. The HSI gives the pilot an indication of the location of the aircraft in relation to the chosen course or radial.

Aircraft Ground-Based Navigation
Figure 3. Horizontal situation indicator

In Figure 3, the aircraft magnetic heading displayed on the compass card under the lubber line is 184°. The course select pointer shown is set to 295°; the tail of the pointer indicates the reciprocal, 115°. The course deviation bar operates with a VOR/Localizer (VOR/LOC) or GPS navigation receiver to indicate left or right deviations from the course selected with the course select pointer; operating in the same manner, the angular movement of a conventional VOR/LOC needle indicates deviation from course.

The desired course is selected by rotating the course select pointer, in relation to the compass card, by means of the course select knob. The HSI has a fixed aircraft symbol and the course deviation bar displays the aircraft’s position relative to the selected course. The TO/FROM indicator is a triangular pointer. When the indicator points to the head of the course select pointer, the arrow shows the course selected. If properly intercepted and flown, the course takes the aircraft to the chosen facility. When the indicator points to the tail of the course, the arrow shows that the course selected, if properly intercepted and flown, takes the aircraft directly away from the chosen facility.

When the NAV warning flag appears, it indicates no reliable signal is being received. The appearance of the HDG flag indicates the compass card is not functioning properly.

Radio Magnetic Indicator (RMI)

The RMI is a navigational aid providing aircraft magnetic or directional gyro heading and very high frequency omnidirectional range (VOR), GPS, and automatic direction finder (ADF) bearing information. [Figure 4] Remote indicating compasses were developed to compensate for errors in and limitations of older types of heading indicators.

Aircraft Ground-Based Navigation
Figure 4. Radio magnetic indicator

The remote compass transmitter is a separate unit usually mounted in a wingtip to eliminate the possibility of magnetic interference. The RMI consists of a compass card, a heading index, two bearing pointers, and pointer function switches. The two pointers are driven by any two combinations of a GPS, an ADF, and/or a VOR. The pilot has the ability to select the navigation aid to be indicated. The pointer indicates the course to the selected NAVAID or waypoint. In Figure 4, the green pointer is indicating the station tuned on the ADF. The yellow pointer is indicating the course to a VOR or GPS waypoint. Note that there is no requirement for a pilot to select a course with the RMI. Only the selected navigation source is pointed to by the needle(s).

Tracking With VOR

The following describes a step-by-step procedure for tracking to and from a VOR station using a CDI. Figure 5 illustrates the procedure.

Aircraft Ground-Based Navigation
Figure 5. Tracking a radial in a crosswind

First, tune the VOR receiver to the frequency of the selected VOR station. For example, 115.0 to receive Bravo VOR. Next, check the identifiers to verify that the desired VOR is being received. As soon as the VOR is properly tuned, the course deviation needle deflects either left or right. Then, rotate the azimuth dial to the course selector until the course deviation needle centers and the TO-FROM indicator indicates “TO.” If the needle centers with a “FROM” indication, the azimuth should be rotated 180° because, in this case, it is desired to fly “TO” the station. Now, turn the aircraft to the heading indicated on the VOR azimuth dial or course selector, 350° in this example.

If a heading of 350° is maintained with a wind from the right as shown, the aircraft drifts to the left of the intended track. As the aircraft drifts off course, the VOR course deviation needle gradually moves to the right of center or indicates the direction of the desired radial or track.

To return to the desired radial, the aircraft heading must be altered to the right. As the aircraft returns to the desired track, the deviation needle slowly returns to center. When centered, the aircraft is on the desired radial and a left turn must be made toward, but not to the original heading of 350° because a wind drift correction must be established. The amount of correction depends upon the strength of the wind. If the wind velocity is unknown, a trial-and-error method can be used to find the correct heading. Assume, for this example, a 10° correction for a heading of 360° is maintained.

While maintaining a heading of 360°, assume that the course deviation begins to move to the left. This means that the wind correction of 10° is too great and the aircraft is flying to the right of course. A slight turn to the left should be made to permit the aircraft to return to the desired radial.

When the deviation needle centers, a small wind drift correction of 5° or a heading correction of 355° should be flown. If this correction is adequate, the aircraft remains on the radial. If not, small variations in heading should be made to keep the needle centered and consequently keep the aircraft on the radial.

As the VOR station is passed, the course deviation needle fluctuates, then settles down, and the “TO” indication changes to “FROM.” If the aircraft passes to one side of the station, the needle deflects in the direction of the station as the indicator changes to “FROM.”

Generally, the same techniques apply when tracking outbound as those used for tracking inbound. If the intent is to fly over the station and track outbound on the reciprocal of the inbound radial, the course selector should not be changed. Corrections are made in the same manner to keep the needle centered. The only difference is that the omnidirectional range indicator indicates “FROM.”

If tracking outbound on a course other than the reciprocal of the inbound radial, this new course or radial must be set in the course selector and a turn made to intercept this course. After this course is reached, tracking procedures are the same as previously discussed.

Tips on Using the VOR

  • Positively identify the station by its code or voice identification.
  • Remember that VOR signals are “line-of-sight.” A weak signal or no signal at all is received if the aircraft is too low or too far from the station.
  • When navigating to a station, determine the inbound radial and use this radial. Fly a heading that will maintain the course. If the aircraft drifts, fly a heading to re-intercept the course then apply a correction to compensate for wind drift.
  • If minor needle fluctuations occur, avoid changing headings immediately. Wait a moment to see if the needle recenters; if it does not, then you must correctly recenter the course to the needle.
  • When flying “TO” a station, always fly the selected course with a “TO” indication. When flying “FROM” a station, always fly the selected course with a “FROM” indication. If this is not done, the action of the course deviation needle is reversed. To further explain this reverse action, if the aircraft is flown toward a station with a “FROM” indication or away from a station with a “TO” indication, the course deviation needle indicates in a direction opposite to that which it should indicate. For example, if the aircraft drifts to the right of a radial being flown, the needle moves to the right or points away from the radial. If the aircraft drifts to the left of the radial being flown, the needle moves left or in the direction opposite of the radial.
  • When navigating using the VOR, it is important to fly headings that maintain or re-intercept the course. Just turning toward the needle will cause overshooting the radial and flying an S turn to the left and right of course.

Time and Distance Check From a Station Using a RMI

To compute time and distance from a station, first turn the aircraft to place the RMI bearing pointer on the nearest 90° index. Note the time and maintain the heading. When the RMI bearing pointer has moved 10°, note the elapsed time in seconds and apply the formulas in the following example to determine the approximate time and distance from a given station. [Figure 6]

Aircraft Ground-Based Navigation
Figure 6. Time-distance check example

The time from station may also be calculated by using a short method based on the above formula, if a 10° bearing change is flown. If the elapsed time for the bearing change is noted in seconds and a 10° bearing change is made, the time from the station, in minutes, is determined by counting off one decimal point. Thus, if 75 seconds are required to fly a 10° bearing change, the aircraft is 7.5 minutes from the station. When the RMI bearing pointer is moving rapidly or when several corrections are required to place the pointer on the wingtip position, the aircraft is at station passage.

The distance from the station is computed by multiplying TAS or GS (in miles per minute) by the previously determined time in minutes. For example, if the aircraft is 7.5 minutes from station, flying at a TAS of 120 knots or 2 NM per minute, the distance from station is 15 NM (7.5 × 2 = 15).

The accuracy of time and distance checks is governed by existing wind, degree of bearing change, and accuracy of timing. The number of variables involved causes the result to be only an approximation. However, by flying an accurate heading and checking the time and bearing closely, the pilot can make a reasonable estimate of time and distance from the station.

Time and Distance Check From a Station Using a CDI

To compute time and distance from a station using a CDI, first tune and identify the VOR station and determine the radial on which you are located. Then turn inbound and re-center the needle if necessary. Turn 90° left or right, of the inbound course, rotating the OBS to the nearest 10° increment opposite the direction of turn. Maintain heading and when the CDI centers, note the time. Maintaining the same heading, rotate the OBS 10° in the same direction as was done previously and note the elapsed time when the CDI again centers. Time and distance from the station is determined from the formula shown in Figure 7.

Aircraft Ground-Based Navigation
Figure 7. Time-distance check formula using a CDI

Course Intercept

Course interceptions are performed in most phases of instrument navigation. The equipment used varies, but an intercept heading must be flown that results in an angle or rate of intercept sufficient for solving a particular problem.

Rate of Intercept

Rate of intercept, seen by the aviator as bearing pointer or HSI movement, is a result of the following factors:
  • The angle at which the aircraft is flown toward a desired course (angle of intercept)
  • True airspeed and wind (GS)
  • Distance from the station

Angle of Intercept

The angle of intercept is the angle between the heading of the aircraft (intercept heading) and the desired course. Controlling this angle by selection/adjustment of the intercept heading is the easiest and most effective way to control course interceptions. Angle of intercept must be greater than the degrees from course, but should not exceed 90°. Within this limit, make adjustments as needed, to achieve the most desirable rate of intercept.

When selecting an intercept heading, the key factor is the relationship between distance from the station and degrees from the course. Each degree, or radial, is 1 NM wide at a distance of 60 NM from the station. Width increases or decreases in proportion to the 60 NM distance. For example, 1 degree is 2 NM wide at 120 NM—and ½ NM wide at 30 NM. For a given GS and angle of intercept, the resultant rate of intercept varies according to the distance from the station. When selecting an intercept heading to form an angle of intercept, consider the following factors:
  • Degrees from course
  • Distance from the station
  • True airspeed and wind (GS)

Distance Measuring Equipment (DME)

Distance measuring equipment (DME) consists of an ultra high frequency (UHF) navigational aid with VOR/DMEs and VORTACs. It measures, in NM, the slant range distance of an aircraft from a VOR/DME or VORTAC (both hereafter referred to as a VORTAC). Although DME equipment is very popular, not all aircraft are DME equipped.

To utilize DME, the pilot should select, tune, and identify a VORTAC, as previously described. The DME receiver, utilizing what is called a “paired frequency” concept, automatically selects and tunes the UHF DME frequency associated with the VHF VORTAC frequency selected by the pilot. This process is entirely transparent to the pilot. After a brief pause, the DME display shows the slant range distance to or from the VORTAC. Slant range distance is the direct distance between the aircraft and the VORTAC and is therefore affected by aircraft altitude. (Station passage directly over a VORTAC from an altitude of 6,076 feet AGL would show approximately 1.0 NM on the DME.) DME is a very useful adjunct to VOR navigation. A VOR radial alone merely gives line of position information. With DME, a pilot may precisely locate the aircraft on a given line (radial).

Most DME receivers also provide GS and time-to-station modes of operation. The GS is displayed in knots (NMPH). The time-to-station mode displays the minutes remaining to VORTAC station passage, predicated upon the present GS. GS and time-to-station information is only accurate when tracking directly to or from a VORTAC. DME receivers typically need a minute or two of stabilized flight directly to or from a VORTAC before displaying accurate GS or time-to-station information.

Some DME installations have a hold feature that permits a DME signal to be retained from one VORTAC while the course indicator displays course deviation information from an ILS or another VORTAC.


Area navigation (RNAV) permits electronic course guidance on any direct route between points established by the pilot. While RNAV is a generic term that applies to a variety of NAVAIDS, such as GPS and others, this section deals with VOR/DME-based RNAV. VOR/DME RNAV is not a separate ground-based NAVAID, but a method of navigation using VOR/DME and VORTAC signals specially processed by the aircraft’s RNAV computer. [Figure 8]

Aircraft Ground-Based Navigation
Figure 8. Flying an RNAV course

NOTE: In this section, the term “VORTAC” also includes VOR/DME NAVAIDs.

In its simplest form, VOR/DME RNAV allows the pilot to electronically move VORTACs around to more convenient locations. Once electronically relocated, they are referred to as waypoints. These waypoints are described as a combination of a selected radial and distance within the service volume of the VORTAC to be used. These waypoints allow a straight course to be flown between almost any origin and destination, without regard to the orientation of VORTACs or the existence of airways.

While the capabilities and methods of operation of VOR/ DME RNAV units differ, there are basic principles of operation that are common to all. Pilots are urged to study the manufacturer’s operating guide and receive instruction prior to the use of VOR/DME RNAV or any unfamiliar navigational system. Operational information and limitations should also be sought from placards and the supplement section of the AFM/POH.

VOR/DME-based RNAV units operate in at least three modes: VOR, en route, and approach. A fourth mode, VOR Parallel, may also be found on some models. The units need both VOR and DME signals to operate in any RNAV mode. If the NAVAID selected is a VOR without DME, RNAV mode will not function.

In the VOR (or non-RNAV) mode, the unit simply functions as a VOR receiver with DME capability. [Figure 9] The unit’s display on the VOR indicator is conventional in all respects. For operation on established airways or any other ordinary VOR navigation, the VOR mode is used.

Aircraft Ground-Based Navigation
Figure 9. RNAV controls

To utilize the unit’s RNAV capability, the pilot selects and establishes a waypoint or a series of waypoints to define a course. A VORTAC (or VOR/DME) needs to be selected as a NAVAID, since both radial and distance signals are available from these stations. To establish a waypoint, a point somewhere within the service range of a VORTAC is defined on the basis of radial and distance. Once the waypoint is entered into the unit and the RNAV en route mode is selected, the CDI displays course guidance to the waypoint, not the original VORTAC. DME also displays distance to the waypoint. Many units have the capability to store several waypoints, allowing them to be programmed prior to flight, if desired, and called up in flight.

RNAV waypoints are entered into the unit in magnetic bearings (radials) of degrees and tenths (i.e., 275.5°) and distances in NM and tenths (i.e., 25.2 NM). When plotting RNAV waypoints on an aeronautical chart, pilots find it difficult to measure to that level of accuracy, and in practical application, it is rarely necessary. A number of flight planning publications publish airport coordinates and waypoints with this precision and the unit accepts those figures. There is a subtle but important difference in CDI operation and display in the RNAV modes.

In the RNAV modes, course deviation is displayed in terms of linear deviation. In the RNAV en route mode, maximum deflection of the CDI typically represents 5 NM on either side of the selected course without regard to distance from the waypoint. In the RNAV approach mode, maximum deflection of the CDI typically represents 1¼ NM on either side of the selected course. There is no increase in CDI sensitivity as the aircraft approaches a waypoint in RNAV mode.

The RNAV approach mode is used for instrument approaches. Its narrow scale width (¼ of the en route mode) permits very precise tracking to or from the selected waypoint. In VFR cross-country navigation, tracking a course in the approach mode is not desirable because it requires a great deal of attention and soon becomes tedious.

A fourth, lesser-used mode on some units is the VOR Parallel mode. This permits the CDI to display linear (not angular) deviation as the aircraft tracks to and from VORTACs. It derives its name from permitting the pilot to offset (or parallel) a selected course or airway at a fixed distance of the pilot’s choosing, if desired. The VOR parallel mode has the same effect as placing a waypoint directly over an existing VORTAC. Some pilots select the VOR parallel mode when utilizing the navigation (NAV) tracking function of their autopilot for smoother course following near the VORTAC.

Navigating an aircraft with VOR/DME-based RNAV can be confusing, and it is essential that the pilot become familiar with the equipment installed. It is not unknown for pilots to operate inadvertently in one of the RNAV modes when the operation was not intended, by overlooking switch positions or annunciators. The reverse has also occurred with a pilot neglecting to place the unit into one of the RNAV modes by overlooking switch positions or annunciators. As always, the prudent pilot is not only familiar with the equipment used, but never places complete reliance in just one method of navigation when others are available for cross-check.

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