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Driving around on earth is easy. There are all sorts of signs, maps, and landmarks. But not in the skies. So how do pilots navigate and know where to go?

Pilots navigate mainly by using the Global Positioning System (GPS). Just like the GPS you use while driving, pilots use GPS from satellites for precise navigation through the air. Combined with onboard systems like autopilot, it’s never been easier to navigate the wide-open skies above.

While flying, pilots don’t have the luxury of roadways and signposts to know where they’re going. Instead, they need to rely on GPS and imaginary waypoints. In this article, you’ll learn all about modern GPS systems as well as other ways that pilots can navigate (how they used to do it before GPS).

At SkyTough, we want to provide you with the best, most helpful content that you’ll find anywhere on the web. To do this, we combine our own knowledge and experience with the input and opinions of other pilots from all over the country. This way, we are able to really nail down the different ways that pilots navigate and pass that information along to you.

Table of contents


How Do Pilots Do Where They’re Going?

As you might imagine, navigating while flying a plane is not quite as easy as it is while driving a car down the highway. Up in the skies, you don’t have physical signs, streets, and an intricate highway system connecting destinations. So how do pilots know where they’re going?

Flying Using GPS And Waypoints

Pretty much all modern aircraft have advanced GPS systems installed from the factory that makes navigation easier than ever. These systems use satellites in space to know exactly where the airplane is and provide precise directions on where the pilot needs to fly to reach their final destination.

GPS systems on airplanes work much like the systems in your car on your smartphone, but there are a few differences. While driving, your GPS system uses roads and traffic conditions to get you from point A to point B. In the sky, the GPS systems found on airplanes use a system of imaginary waypoints placed all over the world.

These waypoints act as checkpoints of sorts, and the GPS systems plan a path from one waypoint to the next, from takeoff through the final destination. With the way that waypoints are set up all over the world, flight paths can be easily generated from one place to another and even altered in real-time if need be. If a plane must be diverted for any reason, the GPS systems can spit out a new flight path that will use different waypoints as needed.

Think of this like the GPS systems that you use while driving. If a road is suddenly closed or traffic gets backed up, the GPS will reroute you to go a different direction. Although you typically won’t face a traffic jam while flying an airplane, the ability of the GPS systems to find a new flight path make navigation easier than ever.

And you know what makes navigating even easier these days? Autopilot!

Does Autopilot Handle Navigation While Flying?

Let’s be honest. Modern autopilot systems are absolutely amazing. In some airplanes, the autopilot system can only handle just the cruise portion of the flight, but it can even take care of the takeoff and landing. Even with all my experience in aviation, modern autopilot systems still blow my mind. I can’t believe a computer can fly a plane almost entirely on its own! But I digress.

So even though pilots can’t leave the cockpit unattended even if the autopilot is on, the system does handle most of the navigation aspects of the flight for them. Autopilot systems are integrated with GPS systems in modern airplanes. So once the autopilot system is engaged and given control of the aircraft, it just uses the GPS system along with the many other systems of the aircraft to effortlessly make it to the final destination.

How Did Pilots Navigate Before GPS And Autopilot?

While almost all modern aircraft have advanced GPS systems to make navigation easier than ever, that wasn’t always the case. Just think back a decade or two ago before GPS was mainstream when we were all printing off hard copies of directions from MapQuest, or using actual maps in our cars to get from place to place.

Now imagine how much more difficult it would be to navigate an airplane through the skies without GPS and autopilot handling much of the piloting for you. So what other ways can a pilot navigate besides GPS?

Using Land-Based Navigation Beacons

One method of navigation that’s still in service today is using land-based radio beacons located all over the world. Known as non-directional beacons (NBDs), these were designed to emit a unique radio frequency that pilots (and captains of ships) can hone in on using the equipment in their cockpits. Once the pilot tunes into the frequency, they can point the airplane in the direction of the signal and fly straight to the beacon.

These beacons all operate from known locations, so if a pilot hones in on a frequency and heads towards the beacon, they know where they’re at once they arrive. They can also know where they’re located relative to the beacon without having to fly all the way to it. These radio signals follow the curvature of the earth, so they’re capable of traveling extremely far distances, making them viable means of navigation and finding your place in the skies.

NBDs used to be one of the most common methods of true navigation even fairly recently. But once GPS became so popular and so easily added to aircraft systems, they became more obsolete. But if GPS stops working or you’re flying an aircraft without an advanced GPS system, NBDs are one of the best alternative navigation techniques while flying!

Dead Reckoning (Time, Distance, & Speed)

This is one of the simplest forms of navigation that a pilot will use. To fly using dead reckoning, pilots will actually need to use some math to figure out the distance and then the time it should take to get to their next checkpoint based on a certain airspeed. Since pilots can control their airspeed while flying, they can maintain a constant speed from checkpoint to checkpoint.

If they then know how far away the next checkpoint on their journey is, they can quickly figure out how much time they’ll need to fly at that airspeed to get there. When they’re approaching the next checkpoint, the pilots will use the next method on this section (pilotage) in conjunction with dead reckoning to ensure they’re on course.

Visual Pilotage

The original form of navigation — visual pilotage. As you might have guessed, that’s really just a fancy way of saying looking out the windows of the aircraft and flying entirely based on what you can see. When airplanes were first invented, pilotage was the only form of navigation there was since GPS and all these other fancy systems didn’t yet exist.

Visual pilotage is done by looking out the windows of the cockpit and using everything a pilot can see to help navigate. The topography of the ground, landmarks, cities, buildings, airports. Anything that the pilot can see that will help to navigate the airplane is fair game. This process is hard enough during the day, but imagine flying a plane at night only using pilotage.

For a pilot, seeing at night can be difficult. If a pilot ever has to fly at night while using only pilotage to navigate, they’ll rely on city lights, runway lights, or maybe even night vision goggles. This is never an ideal situation, but it is possible to fly at night using pilotage. You’ll just need to stay calm and use all your training!