Learning to fly, or thinking of learning? Post your questions, comments and experiences here

Moderator: AndyR

By vw-dan
Had a pretty naff (IMHO) nav flight last week. Was hoping to do a solo landaway afterwards, but my instructor rightly wants to do another, albeit short, flight focusing on feature spotting.

How the hell do I get better at this? Right now I'm really struggling to scan the land for features, identify towns and so on. Any advice?
Have you tried pre-flying your route using Google Earth?

Set the 'eye' height close to the altitude you plan to fly at, then scoot along and try to learn the features.

Not perfect, but depending on where you are it can be a really good way of learning what you can and can't see easily.

I was most surprised to discover rivers are often impossible to see unless they're really wide.

Railways are usually good as they're so uniform.

Whereabouts are you?

Maybe just ask the instructor to do the flying while they point out the features, leaving you to focus solely on being eyes-out?
karlbown liked this
Ask one of us on the forum to take you up. You do the nav! :D

There's often a give-away with rivers as they have trees along their banks. Not always!

The only way to get better is to be up there more, either as pilot or passenger. See if you can go along with qualified pilots from your club, or go up in the back of training flights if they're in a four seater.
I think it comes with practise, but for me the thing that made the most difference was being able to gauge distance.

I remember looking for Norwich Airport, and not being able to find it. (Yes, NORWICH!!!).

The reason was that I didn't know how to look 5 miles away. I was looking over the top of it.

The controller was counting down the miles and I was replying "negative", until she said "you are now overhead the runway", and it clicked, I was looking too far in front of me the whole time. I was 5 miles out, looking straight over the top of it.

I think once you can visualise where you should be looking, (what 5 miles looks like, 10, 20), it helps.

"I'm looking for Royston, it's ~10 miles away, it must be that big town there, as that's what 10 miles looks like, I'll check the detail when I get there"

Also took me a while to get the difference between heading and track.

"We're tracking west, and the feature is to the west, it must be directly off the nose"

"ok, what's our heading (where are we pointing?)"


"so where is it ?"

"ah, good point"

I'm not sure about google earth, it confuses me, but each to their own.
Agree with C57.

Distance and size/proportion are the things which catch you (or at least me) out. 10 miles is really quite close to the aircraft. Large towns are very large. Villages look bigger than you'd think them to be.
3 more things:
- Concentrate on finding one or 2 specific things first. Don't have a general look at the chart and then try to match what you see in real life. Find a couple of things (or 1) on the chart that should be good markers and look for those, then back up with other things once you have that.
- Remember that what is on the chart will always be on the ground, but not necessarily the other way around. I.e., there is not normally any point in spotting a really obvious feature in real life and then looking for it on the chart since it may not be there. Any really obvious features along you route you should have found during your pre-flight briefing on the chart anyway and you should be looking for those on the ground - not the other way around.
- Mark off your last known position on the map and update it with e.g. a green marker or so. That will give you an insant clue of where you should start looking as well as a reminder of where you've been, track , speed etc.

And enjoy it.... it does come with practice and and you'll notice when you take friends up that you have acquired it :)

(Oh - and whatever you do - if you are in East Anglia, never, never ever, navigate by disused airfields - there are just too many of them!)
Some good advice above and if you are anywhere near Gloucester I'll happily give you some RHS time. A couple of other points.

Always read from ground to chart, not the other way around.

Try to follow the rule of three, look for three specific characteristics on a way point or feature to ensure unambiguous ID. e.g. shape of town, where roads, railways or rivers run.

Be aware of the difference between track and heading so as to look at the ground from an offset point of view too.
I found this difficult during my training as well - the way I improved was simply through practice, the more you get used to the type of thing you are looking for (and, like te others have said, roughly how far it should be), the better at spotting it you get. Also, bear in mind 'obvious' things may not be obvious, unless you will be on top of them don't choose things like roundabouts or motorway junctions (not quite as bad as roundabouts) as timing points - they are hard to distinguish and you will spend too much time looking for them at the loss of looking for traffic, use bigger, obvious things (surprisingly I've found lakes nice and easy to spot).

My two learning points

1) Fly as high as you can get away with. If the instructor hasn't specified then don't fanny about at 2,000 ft if the weather and airspace allow get up to 3,000 or 4,000ft. Much, much easier to get the picture from there

2) Look to the horizon. Don't concentrate on the ground you are flying over, look all round you as far as you can see. I trained at Wellesbourne and it all became so much easier when the instructor pointed out that on most days the Malvern Hills stuck out like (insert whatever sticks out a lot here). Very easy then to work back from the hills to Worcester, Worcester to the feature you were aiming for.

Rob P

It will get easier with practice as you will spend less time on concentrating on flying the aircraft and will able to dedicate more brain power to looking for features. A few suggestions if I may:

1. Fly slower. We seem to be reluctant to fly slower for some reason but this will give you more time to navigate and if you do go off track then your XTE should be slightly less.

2. Select a route that is easier to navigate along rather than the shortest route. Make good use of VRPs on the chart (Power Stations and wind farms are excellent). Overfly obvious features. You could also over fly VORs and NDBs to make life easier.

3. A Rob said, fly higher.

4. Pre-identify key terrain features and mark them on your chart. Things like roundabouts and bridges work particularly well. I place a different colour circle around them so as I am flying along a route, I have a series of pre-identified features that I am actively looking out for and when I spot each one, I am checking if the direction and distance looks right.

5. Avoid using disused airfields as Nav points unless you have flow over them before. Some disused airfields shown on the charts are near impossible to spot as they have very few identifiable features left.

6. increase your number of check nav points. Rather than on at the halfway mark on a leg do one at each quarter and make sure you calculate the rough time to that point from your last WPT and that the you reset the clock at each turning point (I always forget this!!).

7. Don't be afraid to do a 360 deg turn over your turning point. not only will this allow you to roll out on your new heading directly over the WPT but will also give you time to sort your chart out, reset your stop watch, adjust the heading bug on your DI etc.

8. Put regular mile marks either side of your route. Try to put these over liner features such as roads, river and railways. This will help you both quickly judge distances on the chart (to see if you are roughly the correct distance from a feature) but also will help judge XTE.

9. Volunteer to fly with another pilot on TopNav 17, this will definitely help you improve your Nav.

If you were located close to Royston I would offer to taking you flying in my Jodel and you could Nav but it may be sold very shortly.
If I might add, one of the cardinal sins is what I call 'fix-grabbing', by which I mean that the student sees a town off the nose and announces confidently "that must XYZ" without attempting to verify his assumption (we've all done it, trust me). Sometimes he's right, in which case we chug on to the next fix. But sometimes he's wrong and we then chug on into a problem.

What I try to get students to do is to tell me why they think that it's XYZ (apart from the fact that it's on the nose and that the timings work). Towns can often look remarkably alike from above until you start teasing out the features that distinguish, say, the town of XYZ from its near neighbour ABC. The town of XYZ might have a prominent ring-road running round the southern perimeter, whereas ABC doesn't have one at all. ABC might have a water feature a mile or two to the north of it, but XYZ doesn't. And so on, I don't need to labour the point. But it's incredible how many times I hear a student asserting that what they can see 'must be' a particular town when it just does not have the features to support that assertion.

Things like Google Earth are a useful aid here but not, I suggest, in terms of learning the turn-points. What you can use GE for is for learning how to identify a feature from the air. At the flying school where I teach we ran a little competition for fun, 'photographing' from the air (actually, just printing off a series of screen-shots) some nameless towns in the middle of nowhere (and not in the local area) and then offering the students the choice. Is this one ABC, EFG or XYZ or another town within 10 miles of any of them? That required them to analyse the features present and to compare them to what they could see ought to be present. With a bit of practice you can get quite good at it.

Ultimately what any pilot has to develop is the ability to constantly challenge his own assumptions/assertions and not to be afraid to change his mind and to make a re-assessment if his earlier assumption turns out to simply not fit the facts before his eyes. As humans it's not something that we're naturally good at doing without a bit of effort.
Last edited by David Wood on Tue Mar 21, 2017 2:37 pm, edited 1 time in total.
Flyin'Dutch', Ben K liked this
Some brilliant advice in this thread and I have little to add, but be careful with Wind Farms...

4535jacks wrote:2. Select a route that is easier to navigate along rather than the shortest route. Make good use of VRPs on the chart (Power Stations and wind farms are excellent). Overfly obvious features. You could also over fly VORs and NDBs to make life easier.

...there is (was?) one marked somewhere near Hungerford (near Basingstoke) which turned out to be a rather small single turbine! Almost impossible to spot!

Irv has a tale about someone missing a waypoint and then the next series of waypoints lining up correctly and on time in some sort of unbelievable coincidence.
Wow! Thank you all so much - I'm going to have a proper read through and try and digest. You've certainly made me feel a bit better about the whole thing and I'm definitely going to try some of the suggestions.

And I may call a couple of you on the RHS offer :)