Why Do Pilots Care About VORs?

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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.

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35 Responses to Why Do Pilots Care About VORs?

  1. Pete Zaitcev says:

    Mac, you need to fly in New Mexico, where GPS is dead in the water due to military jammers. Coincidentially I’ve been to a WINGS seminar where representatives of local bases explained how they jam GPS. They also jam GLONASS (and possibly Beidou and Galileo later), so multi-band receiver isn’t saving you.

  2. Kayak Jack says:

    Using a VOR as a back up to GPS is like using a rock as a back up to a .30-06. Most of the VORs where I fly in central Michigan are totally or partially disabled. they provide either no information, or unreliable information.

    I learned three years ago to not trust VORs. I use an iPad with WingX Pro7 and back it up with a hand held GPS and paper charts.

  3. Cary Alburn says:

    Until the NOTAMs stop flying about huge areas of the country being affected by GPS outages and anomalies, as have been happening throughout the south from Florida to California, having VORs as a means of back up electronic navigation remains important. We’re not talking about a problem with the box itself; we’re talking about humongous areas of unreliable signals, for a long period of time. Maybe in darkest Michigan it isn’t an issue, but for at least a third of the country, it has been an issue for the last year. So yeah, let’s continue to teach how to use VORs. They may not be as accurate as a GPS when the system is properly functioning, but at least they won’t all be knocked off line at the same time by throwing one switch in DC or wherever that switch is located, and they’re a whole lot harder to jam than the very weak GPS signals from 22,000 miles out in space. Don’t get me wrong–I like GPS, or I wouldn’t have spent the money to have an IFR certified GPS installed in my airplane. But like others, I don’t completely trust it, because I remember Selective Availability in the early days of GPS.

  4. Pingback: VORs? Who needs them? | High Altitude Flying Club

  5. Michael Rosing says:

    With the proliferation of increasingly capable navigation systems with mind-numbingly obtuse human interface design, “what’s it doing now?” is destined to replace “watch this!” as the most popular last words uttered before impact.

    It is interesting that you used an iPhone as an example of how technology moves forward.
    I’ve seen toddlers under two years old operating their parents’ cellphones, but pilots with decades of flying experience need a book, a video, 10 hours of ground school and a $3,000.00 checkout before they feel comfortable flying in the clouds with the avionics installed on a trainer. And then they have to do it again the next year.

    When a pilot has to ask how to use the VOR on a box that offers this function, that is an indictment of the design of the avionics, not a failure of the pilot. It should be obvious how use the various functions on a box, and intuitive does not mean ‘standardized’.

    The excuse often given is that modern navigators have so much capability that they have to be complicated to use.
    No. An iPad has a lot of capability too, but if a baby can run it without taking groundschool, then modern avionics could benefit from a heaping addition of obviousness and intuitiveness.

    • Ken Keen says:

      Michael you are hitting the nail directly on the head.

      It’s a phenomenon similar to what happened re PC’s. The idea was to give everyone the “power” of a computer in the form of a PC. When you give millions of people who have no technological education or training a lot of computing power, then naturally they end up not knowing what to do with it. The average PC owner only realizes a very tiny fraction of the potential that is actually there.

      Similar thing with these modern avionics systems. “Open” architectures like those employed to design these avionics systems allow anyone to design a user interface, and there is no standardization. On the surface it sounds like a good thing, but what ends up being created are a lot of individual concepts that only really click with the individual designer who dreamed it up.

      When it comes to avionics, which have the potential to provide information of life-or-death importance, yes their should be simple, standardized interfaces required. And yes your are correct in saying that standards do not mean a cut in power or capability. Complexity and a lot of so-called “feature sets” in the end does not in and of itself make for a better system. A truly sophisticated system is both powerful AND simple.

      • Thomas Boyle says:


        Michael didn’t call for standardized interfaces. He called for intuitive. We need the latter, but not the former.


        • Ken says:

          That reminds me of the old joke that goes.. “Standards? Sure we have standards. I have my standards and you have your standards”. That kind of system is OK when we are talking about how strong to make your coffee, but it doesn’t work well when the system is complicated and/or shared. Actually, we need both intuitive systems and standardization, or the confusion and doubt that Mac is writing about will continue.

          Put simply, it’s better to have a single standard to go by than to have everybody dream up their own “best” system. That’s the problem Mac is writing about – what pilots see when they look at these systems is one design idea here, a different design idea there, and so on. Each manufacturer say theirs is the “best”, which of course it is in the eyes of the guy who designed it. But when you’re the customer on the receiving end, all you see is a confusing mess.

          This is one of those things that I’m reluctant to say should be government regulated.

          • Thomas Boyle says:

            You’re entitled to your opinions. I’m entitled to mine. The designers are entitled to theirs.

            When you advocate using the threat of (state) violence to prohibit me from buying a design I want from a willing seller, the civility has stopped.

            Please remain civil.

            For some of us, being stuck with the 1990s twist-and-press Garmin interface for all time, would be a BAD thing.

            I respect your desire for standards, and manufacturers are free to offer you standardized designs. But please respect those of us who desire innovation, and stop advocating forceful interference in our peaceful and legitimate pursuits.

        • Roger Hasltead says:

          There are two things I can say with a certainty about this topic. Engineers do not think like the rest of the world, usually the more intuitive you make the user interface the more difficult it becomes to program and build, and the number of features required means, multiple, layered, menus.

          I said I can say this with a certainty because I was a computer systems project manager for some years with engineers and other professionals working for me in a large, multinational corporation.

          Our GPSs are sophisticated, computer controlled, multi channel receivers, combined with moving map displays, navigational awareness, and multi function displays that can be integrated with the flight instruments to reduce or eliminate many of the calculations we used to have to do by hand and later with dedicated calculators.

          The easiest and most logical way to combine these functions and menus does not normally give the most user friendly interface. IE, the logical way to build and program a device is not the same as making its operation logical or intuitive for the users. Some companies will hire ergonomic specialists as well as seek user input “to try” to make that interface as friendly as possible. Due to mechanical constraints they usually end up compromising so neither side is truly happy. However “Touch screens” instead of mechanical buttons and knobs give them the ability to program those functions.

          Fortunately most humans adapt rather easily although they complain a lot.

          Many of us who came up from the very basic systems using steam gauges have a very difficult time with glass panels, yet I find them *generally* very easy to use unlike the early GPSs and even Lorans.

          I do see in these posts “what sounds to me” like a disturbing trend, of depending on instruments. I would hasten to add that this is normal, quite common, and requires intentional focus to maintain pilotage skills.

          Even flying high performance I like to fly VFR while looking out the windows. Unless sticking to a flight plan or IFR I only check the instruments occasionally. I’ve flown the same plane many hours so when going on a cross country (with a 1200 to 1400 mile range) at any one time I know where I should be and what I should be seeing outside.

          BTW now days a basic GPS with moving map display only costs about the same as 3 or 4 hours of flying in most spam cans. Color displays and the ability to flight plan makes them pricey. The VFR pilot only needs something to tell them where they are if they suddenly find themselves “positionally challenged”, better known as lost. Yes, we want all those features, but they are not necessary

      • Roger Hasltead says:

        Most, not just the average person know nothing about *anything* technical be it airplanes or computers. I taught a simple “Intro to Computer science Class” in grad school as a GA. The lack of knowledge was to say the least, unbelievable and I heard other GAs say they same thing.

        Only due to good engineering and expensive cars have we reduced the death toll on the highways from 50 some thousand a year to the middle 30 thousand range. Most drivers have no idea about the forces involved. I saw an add yesterday about a super strong very small car that could absorb over 3000 pounds. It sounds great until you realize the forces in a crash even at 20 mph make that 3000#look miniscule.
        If you want to figure it the energy in ft pounds is 1/2 the mass in pounds multiplied by the velocity squared in feet per second. For a car it is a huge number. Actually for a 180# person it is a very large number.

        I’ve been in a crash at highway speeds where my car stopped so quick that all of the antennas pointed straight forward while the impact blew out the windshield.

        One thing we can be thankful for is that very few of these people want to fly airplanes.

        My first job out of college was a sys admin. You could train people on the computers, but if it didn’t work fast enough, they’d just turn it off. It was slow because with all their turning the thing off the disk would fill with files that it never had a chance to clean up.

    • Roger Hasltead says:

      It’s also an indictment of the training system used for glass panels. If they would go back to teaching and using them as we first learned to fly…IE, step by step, most of them are very easy to learn, bearing in mind there is no standardization.

      Just go out flying VFR and use the moving map, then learn to enter courses, then alter courses. The flight instrument portion of glass panels is intuitive. I only had to look once and had all the information I needed to fly VFR or even stay greasy side down in the clouds.

      The most difficult parts to learn are control placement/operation and the entering/modifying flight plans. These are not things that are absolutely necessary to go flying with a glass panel. If you can turn it on and bring up the map you have all the knowledge needed to fly VFR. It’s more convenient to be able to enter a flight plan but that only takes a bit of practice to learn.
      Instead, most programs I’ve seen, insist you know the whole system before taking off. It’s like trying to learn calculus II without ever having trig.

      However the flight plans are necessary for IFR. OTOH I’ve flown some old analog NDB approaches in an old Cherokee 180 where the needle was swinging close to 120 degrees. The pilot with me remarked, ” I saw you do it, but I sure don’t know how you did it”. I told him I took the extremes of the needle swing, picked the center of the swing and assumed that pointed to the station…and it did.

      I had to do an NDB approach into TVC on the practical flight test for the instrument rating. We had one humongous 90 degree cross wind at our altitude. it took one circuit to get established and the next terminated in a “circle to land”. Of course that was the digital NDB in the Deb. You should try one with a strong tail wind and still put it down on the touchdown zone.

      We really need ground based backup for most of our satellite based systems.

  6. Dave says:

    …because its on the test.

  7. Thomas Boyle says:

    I agree with two of the themes in the comments here:

    a) modern avionics are WAY too complicated to use. Interface design is still not even good, never mind optimal

    b) GPS is a weak signal that is being disrupted or rendered unreliable over large areas, apparently by the military. NOTAMs to that effect are common. Consequently, there is a need for a backup system. I actually don’t understand why GPS has to be space-based – it needed to be, for its original military purpose, and I’m not suggesting the space side be stopped, but some ground-based transmitters would do a lot for reliability and precision…

  8. Alex Kovnat says:

    Perhaps it was a mistake to abandon Loran C. Given the possibility of a massive national emergency (i.e. a world war), it amounts to putting all our eggs in one basket to shut down more and more VOR’s and rely exclusively on GPS. It only makes sense to maintain both the physical plant itself (i.e. VOR-DME stations), and also the means and skills to use them. That way, if the president (whoever that may be after January 21, 2013) decides to pull the switch on GPS for everyone except the military or other authorized government users, aviators will still be able to get where they need to go.

    A few years back when Loran C was closed down, there was talk about E-Loran. As an alternative to VOR-DME, we should consider adopting a modernized version of Loran as our standard non-satellite navigation system. That way, we won’t be putting all our eggs in the GPS basket.

    • Roger Hasltead says:

      The abandonment of Loran C reminds me of mayor Daily and Meigs field. It was done quickly with the antennas destroyed so it would have been expensive to go back. The expense of calibrating and maintaining Loran C was no more than a drop in the bucket compared to many systems. One satellite launch would have paid for years of Loran C which would have been the ideal backup.

    • Rick White says:

      I hope they continue to teach celestial navigation in maritime pilot training.

  9. Thomas Boyle says:

    There are other ways to get backup navigation – for example, most phones can locate themselves using cell towers, to within 1km or so, often much less. The phones combine the cell signal with GPS to get navigation in cities where buildings often block the sky. While that’s not good enough for a precision approach, it’s good enough to replace VORs. And, automotive navigation systems were experimenting with low-cost inertial navigation, to cover those GPS outages in cities – there might be a way to incorporate that in aviation nav systems too, for those periods when neither GPS nor cell towers are working (obviously the system would have to indicate that it was in “backup” mode).

  10. E. Evans says:

    Where I fly in southern Minnesota, my airport and a few surrounding ones, we
    use several VOR’s for AWOS and FSS contact. I agree I don’t rely on
    it for NAV, but I find myself tuning in to them anyway on cross country trips
    in case the GPS quits.

  11. SkyGuy says:

    You say every pilot that is VFR can afford a handheld GPS.
    Not true.

    • Alex says:

      “…..You say every pilot that is VFR can afford a handheld GPS.
      Not true.”

      Well, any time you say “every” or “never” or “always” onr is on thin ice.;-)

      But really _practically_ speaking I think it IS fair to say virtually every VFR pilot can not only afford a handheld aviation GPS but a remarkably capable one.

      A brand new iFly 520 is $400. Their larger iFly 720 is ~$700.
      Used slightly older iFly 700′s go for as little as $150.
      The very competant iPad version of iFly is free (yes there is after free trial a $69 per year subscription if you want to keep sectionals and other data up to date.)
      Hard to imagine that anyone who can afford to fly (we all know it’s not cheap) can’t afford that sort of cash …. especially for the incredible increase in navigational ease and safety that relatively small cash outlay buys compared to flying VOR, or throwback to 1930′s just dead reckoning and pilotage.

      The capability and ease of use of these units is such that 20 years ago any GA pilot likely would have murdered his/her grandmother to be able to get one of these. ;-)
      These low priced units are WAAS enabled, highly reliable, color moving map sectionals, have terrain, airspace, and TFR warnings, displays altitude MSL and AGL, “direct me to nearest airport”, weather as was downloaded likely updated at FBO before takeoff, AFD, air photo of what you’ll see at next airport, and other features almost unimaginable only 15 years ago, let alone at these prices.
      And although it is true to use all the features properly one needs to study and practice, they are intuitive enough that the basic functions (where am I? Where should I NOT go? Where do I need to go and how much should I turn to get there? When will I get there? Do I have enough fuel left to get there?) that they can be used well just about out of the box.

      I used iFly’s products as examples because I’m familiar with them. But the whole competitive low end of non-certified but highly competent aviation GPS continues to improve almost by the month.


  12. Joel Newsom says:

    I fly several times a year between Atlanta and Amelia Island, Florida, and on several occasions I have lost all GPS navigation in IFR conditions, around Waycross, GA. One time it was thunderstorming so bad around Jacksonville, FL, that I had to divert to Brunswick, GA, using VOR signals, and wait out the storm for a few hours. Because of these experiences, I always tune in both of my Garmin GPS navigation systems into both the GPS signal and VOR signal enroute. And I always fly my approaches in IFR conditions with my GPS nav and VOR nav together at the same time.

    • Berry says:

      We don’t have bad WX in Idaho. I use my maps and look at the mountains
      But then as aback up I turn my gps on followed by vor and then by
      my DME and then my ADF . If I get lost I deserve To be lost…
      If it reaches that point I park it……..and have a Bud

  13. Dr. Ken Nolde says:

    I am not sure that there is a problem as you describe it. VOR is like “comfort food” familiar, available, and you know what it is every time. I am now flying under LSA rules and when I fly cross country with the route programed into my Garmin 496 and using my auto pilot (truTrac 2 axis w/alt hold) I still tune in VORs along my path. Do I have to, no, but I like to have a backup. I also use sectional charts; nowadays mostly as habit and map reading enhances the trip and it is amazing the number of interesting places you might otherwise miss. I should mention that twice flying in NM and AZ I lost GPS signals for extended periods. Bottomline is that I can be described as an updated old guy!

  14. Harold says:

    I’m sorry to be a negative, Mac, but you and a number of your commentors are snobs. In general aviation there are a lot of us out here who can barely afford to do something that we love so well. We can’t afford the GPS systems or we rent aircraft that only have standard instrument panels with VORs. Treat us with a little respect, please.

  15. Karl Vogelheim says:

    Do pilots care about VORs? They should if they don’t. Everyone is enamored with the GPS and the capabilities of WAAS. Apparently everyone has forgotten about the threat that Lightsquared posed to GPS navigation. Everyone has forgotten that within the past three years, a satellite went rouge and had the potential for damaging if not permanently downgrading the GPS constellation until suddenly, control was restored. Most people forget that there were dire warnings within the past year and a half about increased solar storms and the effect it was going to have on all satellite signals if not the satellites themselves. And then there are the random jamming exercises put on by the U.S. military.

    Are GPS navigators good? You bet. They have a capability just about unthought of ten years ago. However, I don’t want to trust my flying and my life to ONLY GPS. I will have a VOR or other navaid in my aircraft as long as I possibly can if for no other reason as a backup system. The idea of flying in IFR conditions trying to shoot a precision approach using a WAAS approach only to find out that the GPS signals are lost due to X, gives me the cold sweats. With a VOR, I have the possibility of an ILS (assuming the FAA doesn’t shut all those down too) which may be relatively expensive but is always there and should be easy to work on (considering it is mounted to the ground and therefore size and weight don’t really matter) if maintenance is necessary.

    Putting all your eggs in one basket, especially when it comes to flying is NOT good Operational Risk Management (ORM) and I think those that don’t have a separate VOR are asking for trouble.

  16. Chris Nelsen says:

    Navigating by GPS is not real navigation, it is more like appliance operation.

  17. Douglas says:

    I am farely new to flying, but learned to fly about two years ago in a six pack. I am an older student, and hope to fly for many more years. My present plane has a G1000 and though I like it I still sometimes fly by dead reckoning, or by VOR. Why? Because it is fun. Flying by GPS takes the thinking out of flying and puts it into the computer. My plane has a great autopilot, but I still hand fly in both VFR and IFR flights. Why? Because it is fun.

    Mac, I think you miss the point about VOR versus GPS. Yes GPS and its associated approaches and enroute courses are great, but the reason many of the GA population flies is not for transportation, but because we have fun doing it. VOR navigation and dead reckoning may not be the most modern or easiest way to get from point A to point B, but they certainly add to the experience. I agree with all the other reasons behind being able to use non GPS flight guidance.

    Mac, using your logic about GPS, then I would assume you have something against people learning to sail boats or flying gliders. I mean hey why use the wind to get you from point A to point B when you can just rev up your modern engine and get there faster and safer. Hopefully, your logic does not extend that far.

    • Thomas Boyle says:


      You’re going to love NDB approaches!

      • Roger Hasltead says:

        Actually, once the pilot gets rid of the bias against NDBs and has good equipment, they can be fun. Oh, so many years ago when I was working on the rating, my instructor and I flew about 2 1/2 hours doing nothing but NDB work. NDB course intercepts, inbound and outbound. We had strong cross winds, like 30 knots on approaches, and did step down holds of 8000 feet or more. I was expected to lose that 1000 feet during the 180 IIRC and end the descent *exactly* as I ended up on the outbound course. Now that was with that 30 knot wind as mostly a tail wind through the turn and a head wind when turning back inbound. Of course the wind varied considerably from the start of the step down hold to flying the actual approach. After a successful approach I was expected to fly outbound and find the VOR IAF for out airport, but using 2 NDBs. At least he let me use the VOR to fly the approach to our airport. Once you become proficient NDB approaches can be fun and you can make your own approach if need be when GPS fails and VORs are gone. Of course few planes will have NDBs left in them by that point.

        • Thomas Boyle says:

          Pilots in Chino, CA like to joke that, if all else fails, there’s the “olfactory approach” – just follow your nose.


          The airport is next to a huge cattle feed lot…

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