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Down here on the ground we have roads, signs, and GPS systems to guide us anywhere we drive. But how do pilots know where to fly?

Pilots know where to fly mainly due to the GPS and navigation systems that they have access to. In modern planes, autopilot is capable of handling most of the navigation for pilots, so it’s easier than ever. Technology, pilot experience, and assistance from Air Traffic Control make it a breeze.

Most of us are used to driving our cars everywhere we need to go. And it’s super easy with roads, street signs, and navigation systems. But up there in the skies, it’s all wide open. So how do pilots even know where to go? In this article, you’ll learn about the different types of navigation pilots use, how autopilot helps make it easier, the ways that pilots are able to quickly find the runway, and some of the things that pilots can do to see better at night.

I have many years of experience in the aviation industry and I want to share my expertise with my readers and ensure everything you read is true and accurate. To make that happen, I combine my own knowledge with information from other experts in the field including other pilots so that you can rest assured knowing everything you read is as accurate as possible.

Table of contents


How Do Pilots Know Where To Go While Flying?

In the modern age of technology, which is incredibly evident in aircraft and aviation in general, pilots use advanced GPS systems to help them know where they are and where they need to go at any given moment. But the key to each and every one of the different ways that pilots know where to go while they’re flying is that they need to know how to actually use the systems.

In the most basic sense, we’ll suffice it to say that pilots rely on advanced GPS systems to help navigate. And they use their knowledge and expertise to make sense of what these systems are telling them so that they can make it to their destination with little to no problems.

These GPS systems typically work by guiding the plane through imaginary vertical points in the sky known as waypoints. These points are programmed into the GPS and navigation system and the plane basically flies from one waypoint to the next throughout the journey to the destination. If a pilot knows how to understand the GPS system and the waypoints, they help guide the plane to the next one as needed and eventually make it to their destination!

With how advanced aircraft GPS and navigation systems have become, it’s never been easier to fly an aircraft without fear of getting lost. That’s not to take anything away from modern pilots, as it’s still no easy feat! But compared to reliance on visual references and line of sight back in the early days of flight, flying today’s modern aircraft is a breeze.

Different Types Of Navigation For Pilots

While we could talk about the navigation systems in modern planes for days (because we love this kind of stuff), we’ll spare you some of the details of each system. But here are the most common methods of navigation that pilots use to know where they’re going at any given time:

  • GPS and Imaginary Waypoints — This is briefly described above, but using GPS and waypoints is the most common way that aircraft are navigated around the world today. The imaginary waypoints are all over the country (and even the world) and allow pilots and the plane’s navigation system to draw a path from one point to another to the final destination. Then, the pilot (and the navigation system) can just fly along the path from one waypoint to the next until the final waypoint at the destination is reached.
  • Navigation Beacons — Navigation beacons are ground-based beacons located all over the world that each emits their own radio frequency. If the pilot turns their navigation radio to a beacon’s frequency, they’ll be able to determine their relative location to the beacon and then fly towards it. A pilot can fly from beacon to beacon on the way to their destination if their typical GPS system fails.
  • Communicating with Air Traffic Control (ATC) — ATC can typically see most aircraft at any time on their computers because of the transponder on the aircraft. Once the controller can see the plane and knows its heading, they can instruct the pilot which way they need to turn and how long they need to fly to reach their destination.
  • Visual Pilotage — As you might be able to figure out from the name of this method of navigation, this requires pilots to use their eyes and look out from the plane to navigate. They look at the earth below and find landmarks along the way to go from place to place. Back in the day, pilotage was largely the only way to navigate. You can imagine how much harder this is than using modern navigation systems.

Does Autopilot Do Most Of The Work?

Autopilot systems in modern planes seem to get more and more advanced just about every year. Some systems available today can pretty much handle the entire flight once the plane is airborne, including even landing the plane. So that said, it’s fair to say that autopilot systems are capable of handling “most of the work” when it comes to navigation and getting the plane to the right destination.

But that’s not to say that the pilots aren’t still 100% necessary and don’t need to be able to know how to read their instrumentation and ensure they’re headed in the right direction. After all, no computer systems are foolproof, including autopilot. So pilots need to be able to ensure they’re heading in the right direction and be ready to take over any time they need to.

How Do Pilots Know Where The Runway Is?

If you’ve ever been a passenger on an airplane in the middle of the night, especially if it’s dark and stormy, then you might have had some nerves when the landing was imminent. After all, you can look at your windows and not be able to really see much. So how do the pilots know where they’re going and how are they able to descend right down over the runway even if they can’t see it until they’re close?

Like most aspects of flight as you read above, much of this is handled by the plane’s navigation systems and instrumentation. One such system that modern planes have built-in is known as the Instrument Landing System, or ILS. This system uses two radio beams that are emitted from radio transmitters mounted right next to the runway.

These radio beams help the pilot get the plane on the perfect angle of descent to make the landing while simultaneously helping them guide the plane to the direct centerline of the runway. If a pilot gets within 200 feet (in altitude) of the runway but they cannot visually see it, they have to pull back up according to federal law and decide whether to circle back for a second attempt or find another airport to land.

So in the end, it comes down to the plane’s instrumentation and the runway lights that help a pilot find the runway perfectly every time.

How Do Pilots Know Where To Go At Night?

This is a bit of a confusing question on the surface because, for the most part, pilots cannot actually see any better at night than any of the passengers or crew members on board. After all, when you’re flying through the sky at night and look out the window, it’s nothing but a pure black abyss in just about every direction. But as you know from earlier in the article, pilots rely heavily on their instrumentation and navigation systems to reach their destinations.

For the most part, flying at night is largely no different than flying during the day since the computer systems on the planes take care of most things in terms of flight. The biggest differences come when the pilot is coming in for the landing and/or riding around on the runway or taxiway.

That said, there are some things that pilots can do at night that help them stay on track a little better:

  • Runway lights that illuminate the runway clearly so pilots know where they need to head
  • City lights can help pilots spot the airport and runway in the distance during the approach
  • Headlights, anti-collision lights, and position lights on other aircraft help the pilots see each other and prevent accidents
  • In the most remote locations and when the pilot needs to rely on their vision, night vision goggles can be used to see even in pitch black