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The other day I was talking with a friend whose company designs and manufactures advanced navigation systems for personal airplanes. His company’s navigation systems are becoming ever smarter and easier to use including airway entry and “nomination” of logical next fixes along the route.
But when my friend shows his new navigators to pilots most of them ask immediately how to use the basic raw data VOR function. Here is a system that stores in memory every navigation fix and terminal procedure in the country and beyond and pilots want to know how to tune a VOR. We both wonder what is the fixation with VORs?
I can’t remember the last time I actually dialed in a VOR frequency in any airplane. When I’m cleared to cross a VOR it’s just a three-letter fix, no different than any other fix except for the number of characters in the identifier. In fact, many controllers take it for granted that few of us fly raw VOR data anymore because I have been cleared to VORs that are notamed to be off the air. Who cares? The navigator doesn’t, that’s for sure.
And when it comes to flying approaches I can’t remember using an airport that doesn’t have an RNAV approach to the same runway that is served by a VOR approach so I fly the RNAV procedure instead.
I understand that some airplane owners just can’t afford, or at least can’t justify, a GPS based navigator, particularly one certified for IFR. For VFR flying anyone can afford a handheld GPS. But when pilots are seriously considering an advanced IFR certified navigation system, why are many still so concerned with VOR operation?
When my friend and I ask pilots why they care so much about VOR use the first answer is usually something about GPS failing. I’m not sure why this is true, but many pilots simply don’t trust GPS reliability. At least that’s usually the stated reason for wanting to use basic raw data VOR.
Of course, a GPS receiver can fail, but so can a VOR receiver. And when it comes to most advanced navigators the GPS and VOR receivers are in the same box and share at least some components which could wipe out both navigation sources with a single point failure.
GPS signals originate thousands of miles out in space and it is possible that some rare atmospheric disturbance such as a solar storm could disrupt reception so maybe that’s what worries some pilots. Such interference hasn’t happened on any widespread scale that I know of, but it could.
But I don’t think those are the reasons many pilots still want to dial up VORs. I think it is a lack of confidence in how to use an advanced navigator that worries many. That old “what’s it doing now” syndrome can be scary in the air. The level of automation and complexity in many advanced navigators allows them to perform amazingly complex procedures, but also demands a level of understanding that many pilots never achieve.
And no two navigators are exactly alike. Even the same series of equipment can operate at least a little differently depending on its software status. Avionics companies also have given airframe makers input into exactly how the navigator should function so the same avionics box may behave differently in airplane A than it does in airplane B.
With so many variables it is close to impossible to find CFIs who understand fully how to use advanced navigators, or at least how to use more than one type. Pilots can study online courses that are available for most popular systems, but can’t always look to their instructor for useful hands-on advice.
So, when the pilot is unsure and maybe confused, and the CFI doesn’t know how to use the box for sure, the fallback is to dial in a VOR and turn the clock back 60 years. Many pilots simply aren’t getting what they paid for from their navigators because they don’t trust their ability to use the equipment.
Some have demanded that navigation equipment makers standardize their operating systems. That would make it easier to teach and learn, but it would also halt progress. New electronic capabilities and software functions would remain on the shelf unavailable to pilots for decades because something new would end the standardization of the installed equipment. There would be no iPhone 5, because it would be different from iPhone 1, and we would all need to learn something new. Does that make sense?
I don’t have an easy solution to this problem except to urge anyone who has an advanced navigator to use it all of the time and fly to different places. Going round and round the patch can actually be confusing when it comes to using advanced GPS navigators because they are really designed to fit into the system and follow a normal sequence of departure, en route and arrival. At worst its procedures.
GPS has given us an amazing and affordable navigation capability I never dreamed I would live long enough to see. But unless we invest the time and work to learn how to use the system, we may as well turn the clock back to 1960 and watch the VOR needle wiggle back and forth.