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Starting PPL navigation

Hey guys,

I'm starting the navigation part of the ppl course this Sunday. Previously when I was doing circuits a forum user suggested 'Arm chair flying' to help me with checklists/steps, etc. That together with watching some youtube videos (from this forum) helped loads.

Anyone got similar tips for navigation? I know the theory (I passed the exam) but I'm sure it will be different doing it for real! I'm worried that it might be quite difficult to match stuff on the map with real towns/features.

When I started flying the tip I got from my instructor was to try to NOT transfer habits from navigating while driving a car into the plane, i.e. not to use towns/villages as navigational points.

Unless they are really big and depending how high you fly, they all pretty much look the same from the air. Navigational points I found helpful are:

  • motorways, especially where two motorways meet, as they are clearly visible from the air
  • railroads, also mostly clearly visible and there are not that many so usually clearly distinguishable
  • larger rivers
  • towers / televisions towers, they are on the map and usually can be seen from a distance
  • airfields with paved runways (grass runways look just like the surrounding fields and are much harder to spot). However, when using airfields as waypoints make sure that you overfly them high enough to avoid the traffic circuit and also ensure that there is no para dropping

You will be surprised how exact you will be able to navigate with just a map and a stop watch (proper planning and calculations are a prerequisite) and how quickly you will get the hang of it.

EDML - Landshut, Munich / Bavaria

I think picking "slightly weird" ground features is the best thing e.g. two lakes next to each other is much better than one lake.

Most cases of getting lost are where the pilot has "positively identified" the wrong ground feature, so he/she doesn't realise they are lost until the next feature is not found, by which time it is maybe 20 miles down the road and a bit too late...

If following the coast (even at a distance) look for unusual curves in the coast, bits sticking out, etc.

The UK countryside is full of little bits of water, little villages, etc, and they all look the same.

After you get the PPL you will buy a decent GPS anyway

Shoreham EGKA, United Kingdom

I was teached to use "funnels" in the landscape as turning points. For example, departing from EGSV, you fly a 190 track, and then use the railway intersection as your turning point..

The railways will lead you to your first turning point. This concept can be applied to rivers, motorways, railroads, etc.

VFR cross country flying is fun, but can also be quite demanding. It is important to plan ahead. 2 minutes before reaching the first turning point you can already set your next heading on the heading bug, look up the ETE for your next leg, etc. When passing the turning point, write down the actual time and set the new heading. Between turning points you have plenty of time for things like cruise checks, setting the radio, etc.

During training you should stick to the "WW1 style" of navigation, as that is what you need to display during the PPL checkride. After you get the PPL there will be loads of tools to make life easy :-)

Best of luck geekflyer, this is the most interesting part you are embarking on, but also the most challenging I would say. In addition to Peter's point about mistaken positive identification, you can enhance this by checking for 3 things, and not just settling for 2. For example 1: Does the road running North East of out the town run in the same direction on my map? 2: Is the town below me relatively correct to the airport I can in my 3 o'clock position? 3: Is the river running right through the middle of the city that I can see on my map, also runing through the middle of the city I see before me?

Granted it is not easy to do this at 100 kts, but maybe with some up front consideration of what you expect to find for each major waypoint, might reduce the cockpit workload. I recall back breaking moments hunching over the instrument panel in the PA28 trying to find things in front of me before they dissapeared under wing - you can help avoid this by planning a route to right of the major landmarks so you can hopefully see them out of the left hand side a bit easier.

8 years on I'd admit that VFR map/plog/wind correction/stopwatch methods are still quite difficult. The weather (especially summer/high pressure haze and sunlight), or cloud cover can significantly alter how one landmark might look one day to another. I would accept that navigation it not easy and dont beat yourself up if it doesnt always go perfectly to plan. Later in life you can help yourself by using VOR's, ADF's, GPS's as you desire. Enjoy, and best of luck.


A good idea if cannot work out if a town is the town you think it is, is to work out what it is not. Its all too easy to make the town fit what you want it to on the map. So it cannot be x because the road cuts through the middle n-s etc.

And as for rivers on maps....uggghhhh most of the time you cannot see them unless they are big rivers and its winter with no foliage on the trees!

This is where you will also start to do "diversions". Basically you are not going where you thought you would be but changing course for somewhere else.

I use a very simple method to gauge a track to go on. But you do need to know where you are.

Think of a clock face.

You know where you are....what "time" would the place you need to get to be i.e. new destination is at 4 o'clock = 4 x 3 = 12, add a 0 = 120 degrees

if 11 o'clock then 11 x 3 = 33, add a 0 = 330 degrees

if between 7 o'clock and 8 o'clock then work out half way

so 7 x 3 = 21, add 0 = 210 8 x 3 = 24, add 0 = 240 so midway = about 225 degrees.

Then take into account the wind and wind strength to set a heading ie + or - a couple of degrees or so

Works every time and impressed my caa examiner who had not come across this before.

If you also put notches on your pencil 10nm, 5nm, 5x 1nm you can easily see how far. Your plog should have given you your ground speed so you can then work out how many mins.

Have fun as now this is what flying about is all about, not banging away at circuits.


You know where you are....what "time" would the place you need to get to be i.e. new destination is at 4 o'clock = 4 x 3 = 12, add a 0 = 120 degrees

if 11 o'clock then 11 x 3 = 33, add a 0 = 330 degrees

It might sound silly, but can't just just read the needed heading from the Direction Indicator?

It might sound silly, but can't just just read the needed heading from the Direction Indicator?

If you have one, yes.

Where I live, we teach students to use everything that is in the panel. Then on their test they can use the same aids. No handheld gadgets, just map, watch, and whatever the aircraft has. Usually a DI, VOR, maybe an ADF

It's supposed to be fun.

I know the theory (I passed the exam)

Theory and Practice are very different. Navigation is the Process of getting from one place to another in an organised manner. It is a skill, quite different from flying an aeroplane, where some people have more natural ability than others.

It requires you to multiplex your flying with a range of activities of which map reading is only a small component part. It requires some mathematical ability, specifically geometry, which is where some manage better than others.

Navigation is often badly taught with little real instruction. If it is taught in a series of building blocks then the student should learn the basic skill quite quickly and gain confidence. Good practice is essential to the learning process.

Man is never lost, merely temporarily unaware of his position. Heading and Time tell you where you are, assuming you know where you started from!

Flying a little higher makes spotting the next big city, tower or airport much easier. Flying slower gives you more time to think.

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