How Do Pilots Find Their Way?

If you have ever been on an aircraft, you may wonder how pilots know where to go. To answer this, you must understand how aviation navigation works. Aircraft fly between imaginary vertical points called waypoints that are equipped on the aircraft GPS database. Before GPS, pilots would fly magnetic headings and timed legs, or they would utilize radio navigation beacons to acquire position information through basic instruments in the cockpit.

Nevertheless, there are many forms of navigation techniques that pilots can take advantage of, some of which range from basic to advanced technology. Once a pilot has learned how to use each technique, they can get from point A to point B with ease. It is worth noting that as a pilot, you cannot cut any corners in terms of flight planning and accuracy. In fact, any distractions or lack of attention to detail can leave pilots feeling lost.

Types of Aviation Navigation

With modern navigation avionics continually changing and moving toward digitization, piloting is becoming easier. Depending on the aircraft in question, navigation techniques may vary; thus, we will cover some of the most common below.

Local Knowledge

Pilots who are familiar with the area they are flying around will instantly know their position by looking out of a window. They will immediately recognize the area and make their way around without difficulty.


Pilotage is a technique that consists of looking out of an aircraft window to determine their position. Moreover, it is characterized by referencing local landmarks with local knowledge or by taking what the pilots observe and referring to a map to locate their position. For instance, mountains, monuments, roads, rivers, rail lines, and towns all serve as good points of reference.

Dead Reckoning

This technique is based on flying a set heading for a set period of time to reach a set landmark.

Navigation Beacons

Located on the ground all over the globe, navigation beacons have their own radio frequency which pilots can tune their individual navigation radios to. Once this is done, pilots can see the beacon’s location in relation to the aircraft. The simplest way to navigate using beacons is by pointing the aircraft in the direction of the beacon and flying toward it. By doing this, pilots can fly from beacon to beacon to reach their destination.

GPS & Waypoints

Like the GPS-based systems used in cars, aviation GPS enables pilots to either enter a set of latitude or longitude coordinates, and it then paints a line on the instrument panel for pilots to follow. There are GPS waypoints all over the world that are created by each country’s aviation controlling authority. These “imaginary” points have 5 letter names and each will have a dedicated airway between them.

Air Traffic Control Vectors

A majority of aircraft feature transponders, which allow air traffic controllers to pinpoint that specific aircraft on their radar screens. In this way, controllers can instruct pilots over the radio which way to turn or what altitude to climb/descend to, and these commands are known as vectors.

The Importance of Understanding all the Aviation Navigation Techniques

All pilots must learn basic air navigation techniques before they can employ modern day forms. For example, if an aircraft were to lose all electrical power, the pilots must be able to plot their path on a physical map. While losing power is rare, having this knowledge is handy. Apart from all the aforementioned techniques, there are a few more advanced aviation navigation techniques. While GPS is a go-to choice, ForeFlight, FMS, autopilot, and flight directors are also good options.

ForeFlight, FMS, Autopilots, and Flight Directors

Initially developed by two pilots in 2007, ForeFlight uses an onboard iPad GPS receiver or an externally-mounted GPS to feed location data into the iPad and display the aircraft’s position on the Jeppesen publications. It also offers additional navigation information such as overlaid weather, traffic, and instrument approach procedures, as well as up-to-date information about airports, heliports, NOTAMs, airspace changes, inflight weather data, and more.

Modern airliners, corporate and private jets, and larger helicopters are usually equipped with a complete avionics package that includes multiple GPS units, radios, engine and aircraft parameter monitoring, flight directors, autopilots, and more. All of these suites utilize an FMS (Flight Management System) to allow pilots to input a published airport departure procedure and routing plan that has been predetermined by their company dispatchers or flight planners.


Unlimited Purchasing is a leading supplier of aircraft navigation systems and other related aviation parts. With countless options on our database, customers can easily meet rigid time constraints and strict budget parameters. Get started today and see how Unlimited Purchasing can serve as your strategic sourcing solution.


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