Reading chart
4 min read

I was giving a flight review the other day and in the words of Claude Rains (Casablanca), I was shocked, positively shocked that the pilot I was flying with had virtually no knowledge of basic navigation. With the technology available today, I probably should not have been that surprised, but after working in aviation safety for many years, I have a concern.

The pilot in command is the entity on the flight deck for properly positioning the aircraft, not a GPS coupled to an autopilot. If you happen to be flying with a certified navigator, then I am going let you off the hook, but the chances of that in today’s world would be slim to none. If you are a “GPS or FMS slave” and your pre-flight navigation planning consists only of programming a GPS, you may want to give your flight planning techniques a second thought.

Every day, advanced navigation equipped aircraft are wandering off course, pilots are getting lost, and engines are suddenly stopping due to fuel exhaustion because of inaccurate, or a lack of, preflight planning and in-flight position awareness. Of course, the pundits will ask: what does knowing how to navigate have to do with running out of gas? Actually plenty, because proper planning and accurately navigating the aircraft in flight includes accurate fuel planning for the flight track to be flown.

Reading chart

Even with GPS on board, it’s OK to read a chart and look out the window.

Okay, so let us forget the fuel issue for the moment. How many pilots are checking the GPS outage NOTAMs that may exist for their route of flight? I talk to a lot of pilots and the answer is, not many. Just like VORs and radar, GPS is just another tool to be used to maintain the proper flight profile. However, the primary method to determine where your trusty steed is taking you should be a good flight plan and dead reckoning. I can hear the laughter through the page that you are reading from here. That is fine, I have been heckled before (right before the crash, I might add).

Personally, in keeping with full disclosure, I did run out of fuel once, in April 1970. Luckily, I did not join the accident database. I knew exactly where I was: right over the Mexico, Missouri, airport when the engine coughed, thus telling me to switch the fuel tanks in the Beechcraft T-34. I switched tanks and the engine stopped along with my heart. I was at 8500 feet, VFR, so I used the checklist and tried for a restart. With no fuel, I was now a glider. I circled over the airport and landed ok, now stranded on the runway. A great guy came out driving a tractor and asked me if I needed fuel. I told him I still had plenty, but it appeared to be in the wrong tank. He burst out laughing and towed me to the pump. I filled the left tank (the one that worked) and continued to my destination. I later learned from maintenance that the right fuel line was clogged (how, I do not know), thus the tank would not feed.

Examining safety statistics is always an interesting exercise, as is reading accident reports. I know, I know, the accident or close call will never happen to you… this is being written for all the other guys out there, not you. In the United States an aircraft crashes every day (maybe not every day, but there are at least 365 crashes per year; in 2019 there were 1220 general aviation accidents) so the “other guys” are keeping the statistics intact. Continued flight into IMC accounts for a bunch of the smoking holes, but fuel exhaustion (it is back) and a complete lack of situational awareness (read: I have no idea where I am) also have some heavy input to the bar graph.

They say that navigation can be considered an art and I am rapidly finding out it could be a lost art. Are the “other guys” bad people? No, they are not. Are they bad pilots? Yes, they are. I always read the reports of accidents in the public media (I do not enjoy reading this stuff). Inevitably, the accounts of friends and family include the fact that they were a good, safe pilot. I can never recall reading an account that included the fact that the pilot was inept and an accident waiting to happen. As a pilot, where are you in this scenario? This is a thought worth pondering before your next flight.

Proper navigational flight planning and execution in flight is important no matter how many sophisticated navigation devices are mounted on your aircraft dashboard. Do not ignore your compass and timepiece and always be aware of your position and you will avoid becoming one of the “other guys.” Be the best that you can be and remember that a safe flight begins when you are wandering around on the ground, not at rotation.

By the way, if you rarely look at your compass and if you use your fuel gauges for anything other than an option installed to make you feel good, you are rapidly on your way to becoming one of the “other guys.”

Glenn Michael
Latest posts by Glenn Michael (see all)
20 replies
  1. Enderson Rafael
    Enderson Rafael says:

    Hi, Glenn! Excellent topic. I am deeply concerned by the proliferation of people learning to fly with moving maps, because as much as I like and I use them, one has to learn to crawl before he or she gets to ride a bicycle. If you are not able to build a map inside your brain based on time, direction, radials… well, we’ve got a problem waiting to happen. Imagine if a pilot could learn to fly in a fly by wire airplane, where the gusts are mostly corrected, the airplane autodrags to keep you on profile, and if you lose an engine inflight, you actually has to keep your live foot off the pedals? When exposed to direct mode, this pilot would have a very hard time. In a way, the AF447 happened because basic pitch and power “mindset” was lost, in an A330 that was not suppose to stall (although that just works in normal law). Learning to navigate using only a GPS with a moving map with airspaces and airports depicted, kills this essential skill even before it is built.

  2. Allen
    Allen says:

    Are pilots still navigating? Yes, of course they are. They’re getting their flying machines to where they need to. Now, are they using all the tools they could and doing the pre-flight planning that reduces the risks of not safely accomplishing that with the margins we’d all like to see?


    I was trained 35 years ago as a Naval Flight Officer using nothing more than a clock, compass and eyeball/ground mapping radar to get my jet to a target 1000 miles away at 200’ AGL +/- 5 seconds along with accurately planning fuel and making sure the weapons were going to come off the jet on target and fused properly. I did that role for over 2000 hours. Do I expect an average private pilot to do that today? No, heck I don’t expect me to be able to do that today!

    I don’t own a paper chart today but that does not stop me from navigating. In a non-IFR environment, I regard the magenta line as advisory and tend to wander on my hamburger runs along rivers, mountains and other features. Within 100 miles or so of the home-drome I can get anywhere without a iPad or the GPS in the plane. Is that smart? No. I fly in the MD/VA/DC area where a pop-up TFR, the SFRA and FRZ lurks for the unwary. I use every tool I can.

    As far as fuel planning, I think what the EFB has done is reduce the ability of young Aviators to have a good feel for rules of thumb. Asking “does that make sense” when it spits back a number seems to be a lost art. The other issue I have seen bite people, including nearly me early in my GA career, is looking at things like wind along the route and potential changes. You may find, even without an obvious frontal passage, that things have gotten worse for you.

    Are pilots still developing Situational Awareness might be a better way to characterize the challenge you’ve written so well about.

    • Bill
      Bill says:

      Allen….If I had to guess I would say you were an A6 B/N back in the day. I identify with your comments entirely as I was a NFO flying the A6 as a B/N and many a time was spent flying time, distance and heading at 6 or 7 miles per minute 2-500 feet above the dirt. State of the art in my day was a rotating drum computer memory that dumped all the time, an inertial reference unit that never aligned, one radio and one tacan. The radar worked most of the time….but the eyeballs, clock and compass always worked. I left the service and flying in 1978, but took up flying again at age 65. The fundamentals never leave and when I got back into it, I planned a number of flights the “old” way until I realized I could buy an iPad and use amazing planning tools like Garmin Pilot and Foreflight to do the the planning. It feels like using a calculator to do math. But as you mention, like using a calculator, users have to be able to ask the question….”Does the answer make sense?” If we don’t do that you’re bound to believe a bad result or become a statistic.

  3. Fred Zanegood
    Fred Zanegood says:

    Thanks Glenn!

    Many years ago I wrote about MGM (Magenta Line Mentality), a dreaded malady threatening to invade the minds of pilots. This affliction brings with it the sentiment of, “if I can just stay on this line then I will get to my destination.” You can hear telltale signs of this even today when ATC will ask for a position report and an unwary pilot responds, “Uh… we’re 175 miles from waypoint X.” Situational awareness be damned, the magenta line WILL lead us to the promised land! I’ve often stated that the other guy IS you. (Check out the AFJ article here: Technology is wonderful. GPS and in-cockpit EFBs for the masses have given us tools that would have seemed like science fiction not too long ago. But these tools should always be used in concert with an actively engaged brain. Don’t ever give up the ship to a piece of technology, a distraction, an ill-informed ATC instruction, fixation, get-there-itis, or any number of other gotchas. One hole in a piece of Swiss cheese is fine. Just don’t let more than one, piece-by-piece, begin to line up.

  4. neil+cosentino
    neil+cosentino says:

    SITUATION AWARENESS TRY This – Get your students involved in my very LOW TECH pilot navigation system. I call it the SIMPLE SIX ( 6 ) Minute NAV System a.k.a. The SSSYSTEM Six ( 6 ) minutes is ten percent of an hour therefore 10% ground speed ….is how much land will pass under your wing in 6 minutes. Example at 120 ground speed x 10% = 12 miles in 6 minutes or 2 miles every one minute… then ask the student to start judging distances on the ground … to turn points, lakes, rivers, airports, towers… inflight visibility…using the clock and
    the SSSystem which also applies to fuel flow, glide distances…
    Note – I was amazed how fast and how good – accurate my student pilots were …

  5. Rob
    Rob says:

    Mr. Michael,
    As an airline captain and CFI with deep roots in GA, I share your concern and link it with automation dependency (fascination?) along with Mr. Rafael in the prior comments.
    On three occasions recently I’ve ridden along with aircraft owners whose attention was majority focused inside the cockpit on their very capable navigation/traffic displays during low altitude day VMC ops. And in some cases the autopilot was engaged ASAP and box programming took priority, even for a 6 minute flight to an airport in the next town.
    I had chalked it up to private pilots wanting to impress the airline guy with the latest technology and assuming that was my comfort zone but that is not the case.
    Not unlike our lives outside the cockpit, colorful screens and advanced technologies seem to draw us in and take our attentions away from the landscape (and life) passing by around us. In life it is sad, in an airplane it is irresponsible and potentially dangerous.

  6. Douglas G. Grant
    Douglas G. Grant says:

    I take it that you would also be against flying in IMC since there is no ground reference? I take issue with your implication that a pilot getting lost is a common occurrence. I have learned to plot a course and fly by time and landmarks and the only time I have been lost was when I didn’t find the landmark. My GPS got me to the airport.
    When I fly I have a glass panel that has redundant, battery backed up, everything. I also have an iPad and an iPhone plus a backup battery for them. I fly with at least 1 hour of extra fuel. (Yes, I stick the tanks before each flight.) I do have a compass.
    The only case I can think of where I would lose everything would be a GPS outage or a major EMF event (like a nuclear strike). Which is less likely than an engine out situation.
    Oh and I don’t have a stick shift in either of my vehicles.

    • John
      John says:

      Doughlas and Gambino,

      I agree, IMC is a different world. Lose the PFD and MFD – back to the tablet. Lose the tablet and… We’re long past declaring an emergency. That’s assuming we have the coms to do it. But in VMC lose those same devices and it’s “ho hum…” Regardless, if in IMC and we lose our gadgets… What’s our plan if we eventually arrive in VMC the situation changes? Then that pilotage thing becomes vitally important for our survival.

      I don’t often use paper charts, BUT… when was the last time you flew in very hot weather and had your iPad or tablet wink out? It’s happened in my cockpit on more than one flight. Besides my magenta line (if I’m flying it), I also lose my charts. Anything with a battery or that depends on software can behave poorly, and that’s absolutely true of GPS.

      While it might be true that engine failure is “more likely than…”, is that a good excuse for lack of preparedness? Nope! Have you looked at the NTSB’s annual scorecard of what they call the “defining event” for aircraft accidents? Over the past decade “system malfunction – powerplant” has always been in second or first place, swapping places with I-LOC. But that’s just the accident rate. In terms of occurrence there’s absolutely no doubt a lot more loss of power events occur that don’t result in accidents. Proficient, prepared, pilots have a much better chance of managing a loss of power event in SE aircraft than pilots who are ill prepared for their transition to partial power or complete loss of power.

      Terrain rarely changes very quickly, and roads morph only a bit more rapidly than terrain. All that means is that 6 year old sectional might not have the latest airspace, but it does have very static terrain features that easily translate into good S.A. and accurate navigation.

  7. Stephen Phoenix
    Stephen Phoenix says:

    The point concerning IFR is well taken.

    I don’t think that one can point to the accident records and come to the conclusion that a lack of map reading skills is a definite safety problem.

  8. Steven Bailey
    Steven Bailey says:

    In the UK, we have something of a dual problem, there being no formal training in GPS navigation in the PPL curriculum.
    For those who have not had the pleasure, negotiating through UK airspace VFR (particularly in the south) could be compared with playing three dimensional chess with a supercomputer (no sane person would design airspace our way if starting from scratch). GPS information is, therefore, very important but, as Glenn points out, occasionally fails. Accordingly, my spouse and I always fly with the nearest VORs tuned in, just in case (the weather here is often bad, so visual clues are variable and we can fly IFR on a VFR flight plan).
    So, we have the curious problem of trainees becoming ‘temporarily uncertain of their positions’ and busting controlled airspace, where the infringement could have been avoided if they had been taught to use GPS, and inexperienced qualified pilots over-relying on GPS instead of simultaneously keeping a visual, or at least VHF, check on where they are. Lovely.
    Whilst paper maps could reasonably be a thing of the past, here, we might do well to redesign training and revalidation to ensure that pilots are thoroughly familiar with all methods of navigation: visual, VHF beacon, GPS, and, if all else fails, 121·5.

  9. Frank+Merrill
    Frank+Merrill says:

    There’s a memory cell banging in the back of my head from nearly fifty years ago, reminding me of the statement somewhere deep in the FARs that states that the PIC has the responsibility to become familiar with ALL available information pertaining to the planned flight. While some children of the magenta line might reason that the adjective ALL might not apply to minutiae as rivers, clocks, roads, gallons and towns, I posit that adverse legal proceedings would examine such details very closely.

  10. SKYKON
    SKYKON says:

    As an active pilot having soloed in 1963 and (still) flying 100+ hours per year, I have to respectfully disagree with Mr Michael’s premise that by eschewing the magenta line, flight becomes a safer endeavor.

    That’s kind of like saying that if you don’t learn to use a slide rule during an education leading to an engineering degree, that you will somehow be a “lesser” engineer. I learned to be a whiz on a slide rule while becoming a mechanical engineer in the 60’s – yet turned out to be a horrible engineer and a much better salesman during my work career.

    I fondly remember the days of cross country IFR with two VORs, no DME, a single ADF and of course lots and lots of paper maps. Do I pine for those days of old technology? Absolutely – not on your life!

    The ForeFlight magenta line offers an option based upon your aircraft’s performance and winds aloft that shows how far your airplane will traverse after an engine failure prior to engaging Mother Earth. Combine this with “Nearest” and you have just one example of a multitude of examples that make following the magenta line far safer from a safety (and flight enjoyment) standpoint than multiple maps in the cockpit.

    Just like engineers, some of us are not cutout to be pilots and should remain on the ground but our Country has never been very successful at legislating stupid and so we’ll continue to have an average one-a-day of unqualified aviators drilling a hole in the ground somewhere in the USA year-in and year-out.

    Pilots are risk takers and pilots flying GA aircraft within the USA have been granted a huge degree of autonomy as to how they each personally define risk. Many are comfortable with relying completely upon the magenta line to help manage their personal risk in flight. Me included compared to the old technology ways!

    • Mike
      Mike says:

      Mr Skykon has wisdom in line with his experience and common sense. Utilizing modern technology isn’t a safety crises and isn’t a crutch. Is the PIC truly in command or his his situational awareness and risk management marginal? Magenta line using satellites or paper charts and slide rules are surface issues.

  11. Erik Vogel
    Erik Vogel says:

    I agree, and although not quite as old as Mr Skycon, I also flew IFR in the VOR / 1 ADF only arena and ended my career in a CFIT during a snowstorm.
    GPS ( not invented yet) and even a radio altimeter ( available but too expensive I was told) would have been a game changer.
    I fly GA now and tried to show a student some map skills for when she did any cross country. I couldn’t even convince her to orientate her map with our direction as she wanted to ‘read it’. When I started right seat, map reading was our first role, and I admired the left seat driver who had his map folded to 4” while mine was still folded in half…so I could flip it over to double check.

  12. Kenny
    Kenny says:

    I try to keep from falling into Magenta Line Syndrome by navigating by VORs, but, to paraphrase Captain Louis Renault, “I am shocked! shocked!! at the number of VORs that are NOTAMed out of service or decommissioned along the routes that I fly”. If there were a widespread GPS outage in IFR conditions, I would have no alternative but to stay on the ground. I suppose I could try to get radar vectors from takeoff to destination, but imagine the effect on ATC if everyone wanted to do that.

  13. Alan Murgatroyd
    Alan Murgatroyd says:

    As one-time airline crew, a student in our Aero Club listening to me talking about Astro navigation, said “What’s a sextant ?” One could weep. Subsequently I was asked to talk about “Navigation before GPS” and started with Radio Range, continuing with NDB, VOR, Decca, Consol, Loran, Gyro steering across the North Pole and ended up describing the procedures required to get a three star astro fix.

    Paper Charts ? Flying with a friend over Southern Califonia recently, he gave me control as he fiddled with his iPad. I felt very uncomfortable not knowing precisely where I was, just following the headings that he gave me, until he gave me a chart that he had in the back of the seat pocket.

    Once crew on a 707 flying a new service across the USA, the Capt. had bought an AAA road map, and was identifying places and cities of interest as we flew along beacon crawling our way to LAX. A passenger looked through the door, and said ” Jeez, don’t you guys know where to go ?”

  14. Dustin
    Dustin says:

    As a younger pilot, 29 and flying since 2012, I still navigate solely with paper maps (VFR Sectional Charts and TACs). And that’s all over the western USA, 300-400 hrs per year, often going to uncharted off-airport locations. Almost no one I know still navigates with paper; and many I have noticed have a severe lack of awareness for how the country is truly laid out. But none the less they manage. I hold to the old ways for the fun of it; I am PIC and enjoy knowing intimately where I am going, where I have been, and where I could go at any moment.

    But that brings me to a different point on the matter, which is that enslaving ourselves to GPS navigation has removed so much of the involvement in the process that it has now subconsciously made us more apt to become bored with aviation. I think removing the sport, stress, and thrill of navigation from the necessary day-to-day skills of flying overall lessens the magic of being a pilot and leaves us more a follower-of-the-machine than a commander-of-our-crafts. It discourages the wonder and desire to seek something unknown since we know for sure, with the GPS, we will be going where we intend; so why bother really interpreting what we are seeing and where we are? We can just passively watch it go by as if riding on an airliner.

  15. Steve Kuemmerle
    Steve Kuemmerle says:

    Paper charts? Yup, love ‘em. Cheap insurance as backup and faster than displays to look for stuff. Primary navigation is GNS430W, with advisory iPad fed by the ADS-B, but when that fragile GPS signal goes down, my tick marks on the chart along the way are my lifeboat. Besides, nothing like the smell of a new chart.


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