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Home > Blog > Light Aircraft Navigation

Mastering Light Aircraft Navigation: Tips and Techniques

Posted 26 May 2023

Light Aircraft Navigation

Read below to learn more about light aircraft navigation and some great tips and techniques that you can use to master this essential elements of flying aircraft!

Navigation is a key element in aviation and mastering it can help pilots progress in their careers and help them efficiently navigate through their intended routes.

Navigation used to be dependent on analogue technology back when aviation was still in its infancy – but today, thanks to modern technology, we have a range of navigational equipment that can precisely guide and even track aircraft in the sky.

Read below to learn more about light aircraft navigation and some great tips and techniques that you can use to master this essential elements of flying aircraft!

Light Aircraft Navigation Basics

Not all light aircraft are built the same! There are a range of light aircraft, each with its own set of navigational equipment. But before we get into the details of these aircraft, let’s take a look at some of the most essential navigational equipment.

Here is a list of all the necessary equipment typically used for navigation:


The humble compass has been an integral part of exploration whether on the ground, over water, or in the air. The compass is perhaps one of the most basic and essential navigational equipment on an aircraft. Even the most basic of aircraft have this handy tool that can help pilots quickly orient themselves while in the air.

In the old days, analogue compasses were the go-to tools for navigational purposes, but today, we have multi-purpose digital compasses that can display more than just directional information, like altitude, weather information, speed, and more.


The altimeter is another classic navigational instrument that plays a pivotal role in precisely adjusting the altitude of the aircraft. An altimeter is extremely important because it can help pilots keep the aircraft within its limitations and it can also help pilots avoid breaking altitude restrictions.

Above everything else, an altimeter can also help pilots detect if an aircraft is gradually losing altitude, which may indicate a serious problem.

Airspeed Indicator

The airspeed indicator is another essential instrument that shows the airspeed of the aircraft. Airspeed plays a big role in navigation because it can help pilots calculate the total duration of a flight using groundspeed and other techniques.

Knowing the airspeed when flying with and against the wind also has a lot of implications in navigation as it can help pilots plot better and more efficient routes in their flight plan.


The Global Positioning System (GPS) is perhaps the crown jewel of science and technology. GPS systems enable navigation in the modern world, both on the ground and in the air. GPS technology works by tracking devices or GPS-enabled instruments using a series of satellites.

These satellites triangulate the location of the device using mathematics and precise measurements. The biggest benefit of GPS technology is that it is nearly instantaneous, meaning that you get real-time data about your current position.

GPS technology has helped progress aviation in many ways and due to the relatively low cost of GPS devices, they are popularly used in light aircraft that don’t have on-board instruments. Using GPS, a pilot can quickly figure out their exact location and they can use this positional data to plot routes and make any changes if required.

Radio Navigation

Before GPS technology, there was the humble radio that continues to be used in various capacities even today. Radio technology works by emitting radio waves that can travel vast distances. These radio waves are then detected by receivers and this data can be used for various navigational purposes. That’s right, radio is more than just an instrument for communication, it can also be used for navigation!

For example, an aircraft can use VOR (Very High-Frequency Omnidirectional Range). A station can emit VOR signals in all directions and when these signals reach the VOR receiver on an aircraft, they can reveal the distance between the station and the aircraft using a DME (Distance Measuring Equipment). Not only this, but pilots can switch between various VOR stations to navigate along routes!

Pilots can also use a Non-Directional Beacon (NDB). Similar to VORs, these ground-based beacons transmit a signal in all directions, except in the case of NDBs. These beacons don’t provide directional information, rather they are used to display the strength of the signal which can indicate whether an aircraft is near or away from the beacon.

It is important to note that while radio navigational technology has fallen out of favour thanks to the advent of GPS technology, radio navigational aids are still used today, especially in remote areas with limited GPS coverage. Radio navigational equipment can also be used to correlate the GPS data to confirm the location of the aircraft.


A transponder is a device that is fitted inside an aircraft. The transponder emits radio signals that can be received by ground crew and other aircraft as well. Transponders don’t just play an important role in navigation as they can help reveal the exact location of the aircraft on radar, but they are also used as an anti-air collision tool.

Since a transponder emits a signal that can be received by other aircraft, pilots can keep an eye on their navigational path and steer clear of any overlapping routes with other aircraft.

Techniques for Light Aircraft Navigation

There are three navigational techniques that all pilots use in any type of aircraft:

  • Pilotage
  • Dead Reckoning
  • Radio Navigation

Pilotage is simply using landmarks to identify the position of the aircraft. Landmarks like mountain ranges, manmade buildings, geographical features, roads, rivers, and more can be used by the pilot to get a rough estimation of the location of the aircraft. Pilotage has been an important tool in light aircraft navigation since the early years and is still used today but ultralight aircraft pilots don’t have any sort of on-board navigational equipment.

While pilotage isn’t used as much today, it is still a core navigational technique that every pilot needs to master. Detecting visual cues can help pilots quickly navigate through their route and can also help them in the very rare event of a navigational system failure.

On the other hand, dead reckoning uses a bit of math and intuition to figure out the exact location of an aircraft while in the air. The dead reckoning concept takes into account the aircraft’s last known position, airspeed, heading, and duration to determine the current and even future position of the aircraft with incredible accuracy.

Of course, for dead reckoning to work correctly, a pilot must make sure that all the variables remain the same. For example, if there is a change in airspeed, then this small change will have a huge impact on the calculation of the position of the aircraft. This concept is by far the most commonly used navigational technique by light aircraft pilots and is one of the best ways to navigate while in the air.

Instrument Flight Rules

Instrument Flight Rules or IFR is a set of rules that can help pilots fly without the use of visual aid. For example, in weather conditions that hinder visibility or when flying at night, various flight instruments can be used to navigate the aircraft safely.

For example, the pilot can make use of the radar, altimeter, airspeed indicator, GPS device, and nearly all of the above-mentioned instruments to easily navigate the aircraft along a plotted route.

Instrument flying is an essential part of a pilot’s training but is usually an add-on certification that private pilots can pursue on top of their Private Pilot Licence. If you don’t have a Night Rating or aren’t trained for Instrument flying, then you will only be allowed to fly under Visual Flight Rules while only allowing pilots to fly aircraft during perfect or adequate weather with full visibility.

Important Tips for Mastering Light Aircraft Navigation

Here are all the important tips that every pilot must keep in mind to excel in light aircraft navigation:

Planning Routes

Aircraft navigation isn’t just about directions. An effective pilot will always come up with a comprehensive flight plan that highlights their routes and various other factors concerning their trip. For example, a flight plan can include alternative routes which can come in handy if the aircraft runs into bad weather or if the aircraft is headed towards temporarily restricted airspace.

A flight plan also takes into account the terrain, airspeed, weather conditions, and all the available navigational tools equipped in the aircraft. Many of the things mentioned in a comprehensive flight plan may seem redundant, but all successful pilots make it a habit to list down the minute details of their flight so that they can minimise or even eliminate any type of risk associated with their flight.

Keep Practicing

If you want to master something, then you must put in the hours and practice it! There is no better way to improve your navigational skills than to repeatedly practice them during flights. You can also take seminars, talk to professional or veteran pilots, and consult with other fellow aviators to learn more about navigation.

We also recommend that you focus on understanding and learning various radio navigational aids! While radio technology may not be the priority in a digital world, every pilot must master the concepts related to radio technology so that they can use them to correlate navigational data or in the event of an emergency.

Always Be Aware

The benefit of having various navigational equipment is that the pilot doesn’t need to always glue their eyes to the onboard instrument gauges. However, if you want to master navigation and eliminate any risk then you will have to make a habit of periodically checking all navigational equipment to confirm your location.

Having a sense of situational awareness goes a long way in mastering navigation and can even help you develop the right kind of mindset to progress in your aviation career. For private pilots that fly relatively simpler aircraft, having situational awareness is mandatory as it can help them navigate their light aircraft efficiently.

When in Doubt Using Dead Reckoning or Pilotage

As explained above, pilotage and dead reckoning are two extremely simple but incredibly important navigation techniques that can help pilots navigate their aircraft safely. For pilots that fly gliders, or flex-wing aircraft with just a compass, these techniques are the gold standard for navigation.

Many successful pilots subconsciously use pilotage and dead reckoning to determine their location while flying and, with enough practice, you too can improve your navigational skills and use these techniques to fly more efficiently.

Keep an Eye on the Weather

Weather can be the worst enemy of aviators. Thanks to modern technology, pilots have been able to navigate the skies even in bad weather using various modern navigational equipment. However, in the case of light aircraft, pilots must always take the changes in weather into account.

Keep in mind that most light aircraft don’t have the advanced navigational systems found in larger aircraft that regularly fly at night or even during low visibility – which is why it is much better to abort a flight during chances of bad weather than pushing through it. While various navigational techniques can be used to safely navigate an aircraft in any weather condition, the point is to always reduce unnecessary risk!

Training for Light Aircraft Navigation

Want to learn how to fly or improve your navigational skills? Then we recommend that you enrol in a flight programme that focuses on your training needs.

Flight schools like Sherburn Aero Club are specifically designed to cater to the individual needs of all candidates. Not only can you learn how to navigate the skies, but flight schools also offer the benefit of learning from the experience of other certified and veteran flight instructors. Flight schools can also give you access to a range of light aircraft that can you use to further your navigational training.

Comprehensive flight schools may even offer simulation training that can help you hone your navigational skills in various simulated environments. This type of training is gold for pilots who want to progress in their aviation career – and for hobbyists that want to fly more efficiently! ImTop of Form


Sherburn Aero Club, which has been operational since 1964, is the ideal place for most of your training and flying needs. It is one of the largest flying clubs in the North of England and also one of the largest in the country.

For those who wish to experience the thrill of a flight for fun or to help fuel their aviation dreams, Sherburn offers experience flights for the newbie, as well as the veteran in various types of light aircraft.

The flight experience option is also available for people who wish to take to the skies for special occasions, even if they aren’t into aviation in the long run. Sherburn Aero Club also offers simulation training for pilots that want to advance their skills!

If you wish to begin your career in aviation or wish to take to the skies as a hobby, Sherburn’s flight training school offers private and commercial licences, along with pilot medicals to ensure a smooth journey going forward.

With a large fleet of new aircraft and an airfield refurbishment with new runways, hangars, and an extended clubhouse, we cater to brand-new flyers who have just started their journey to the skies, as well as seasoned flyers who have been operating aircraft for decades.

Sherburn offers a dedicated day-long Flight Radiotelephony Operator’s Licence (FRTOL) course for those wishing to get the certification, running the first Sunday of every month.

In addition to that, if you are looking for a hangarage for your own aircraft, need servicing or repairs, want to buy a new aircraft or aviation equipment, or are just looking to enjoy and watch the aircraft, Sherburn Aero Club is the place to be.

Call us at 01977 682 674​​​, email us at flightdesk@sherburnaeroclub.com, or message us via our online contact form for more information on light aircraft, training requirements, licencing procedures, as well as experience flights and pilot training at Sherburn.

Photo by Rui Alves on Unsplash 



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