Tuesday, December 20, 2011


According to this article on AirTrafficManagement.net, as well as others, the Federal Aviation Administration is getting serious about decommisioning as many VHF Omni-Range (VOR) stations as possible, leaving behind a skeleton system in case of GPS failure. This is a testament to the success of the GPS and WAAS programs, which have demonstrated their utility and reliability over, what, millions of flight hours?

I'm an old-fashioned guy: yes, I own a sextant, but the last time I tried to take a sight I had to knock on my neighbor's door and ask when he had moved to Montana (and that was so long ago that he has since moved to Utah). But I don't use the sextant in flight, and in fact with the rise of tablet apps (I've been using both Skycharts and FltPlan.com), I don't use paper anymore, either. I have a current sectional chart for my local flying area, and current Low/Enroute IFR charts, but when those expire I will probably switch to WAC charts for "emergency" back up. I use a yoke-mounted VFR GPS for navigation, which merely supplements the VOR/DME for IFR flight, of course (our club can't afford a panel mount GPS right now).

One other thing: I miss keeping a paper navigation log, but have found a nice hack: make a pdf of the navigation log from whatever source you like, and open it in uPad, another app. This allows me to write on the nav log, noting clearance, OOOI times (Out-Off-On-In), time-of-station-passage, times when I switched tanks, and the like.

Do you have trouble remembering the ATIS code? I form the letter in American Sign Language; that little bit of multi-modal memory manipulation seems to do the trick. Some pilots "write" the ATIS code on the yoke with a finger. Same idea. As for the ATIS content, I set the altimeter, so there's no need to write that down, and then pull up the approach to the runway in use, so there is no need to write that down, either.

But back to the VORs. I still use them!, even when flying VFR. I know I'm not supposed to, but I hearken back to this advice from Bowditch's American Practical Navigator, available online from Wikisource:

[Navigation] includes the routine use of several different navigational techniques, both as operational checks and to maintain skills which might be needed in an emergency. Any single navigational system constitutes a single point of failure, which must be backed up with another source to ensure the safety of the vessel.

So I still tune VORs.

Many years ago, when airliners had VOR and DME (no groundspeed) and ADF, I was a passenger on a United flight to San Diego, dutifully listening to Channel 9 (United puts ATC on its entertainment system). The whole way from Chicago the Morse letter 'W' could be heard in the background. What was 'W'? Checking the charts when I got home, I saw that 'W' was a powerful marine beacon located at Point Loma, near Lindbergh Field. Somebody up front wanted to have a needle pointing to San Diego for the whole trip...

Alas, marine beacons have disappeared from aeronautical charts. The most interesting area was Long Island Sound, where all of the beacons were on the same frequency but transmitted on a schedule. Thus, you could triangulate with a single receiver: one line of position from beacon #1, the next minute a LOP from beacon #2, the next from #3, and there you were!

Here you see an old (1989) Sectional Chart Legend, showing the beacon in question and how to use it. The "H+00 & ev6m" for Point Loma beacon (identifier W) indicated that it broadcast for the first minute of the hour, then every 6 minutes. So, if your watch was accurate, and the time was H+06, you knew that you were listening to Point Loma. There were other beacons along the coast, with broadcast schedules "H+01", "H+02", etc.

Some people used these.

Some people still tune VORs.

Some people still tune ADFs.

Some people take comfort in seeing the the appropriate constellation ahead.

Not just me.

BUT, the question is whether this is worth the expense of maintaining all of
those stations. (I'm not suggesting that we decomission the North Star!)

Probably not.

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