What is "picture flying" and does the FAA define it in any of their literature?

Here is an example situation. You are instructed to depart using a SID. The SID states that at 1.5NM from ABC VORTAC a left turn should be made to heading 360. Your FMS allows you to draw a 1.5NM ring around the fix on your moving map, so you draw the line. When the little airplane is at the line, you make the turn. Anecdotally, I have been told this constitutes "picture flying" and isn't a legal way to comply with instructions from a SID or other procedure. The legal method would be to tune the VORTAC and make the turn when the DME reads 1.5NM.

One could make the argument that the DME is as inaccurate as the visual estimate from the picture flying. Aircraft climb at different rates and the angular distance affects the straight-line distance across the ground, especially if the instructions are something like, cross 20NM from ABC VORTAC at 10,000 feet.

Any definition or clarification from FAA publications or letters would be appreciated.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ What's the difference between what you described, and using GPS instead of DME? $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    May 29, 2018 at 22:23
  • $\begingroup$ @Pondlife - "(...) you can't enter any fixes yourself based on lat/long or whatever": I think answers the question. $\endgroup$
    – user14897
    May 30, 2018 at 3:09
  • $\begingroup$ There is potentially a difference between "the point which is actually 1.5nm from ABC" and "the point at which the DME reads 1.5nm". I treat it analogously to your indicated altitude relative to a local altimeter setting, versus your exact actual height above sea level. $\endgroup$
    – IanF1
    May 30, 2018 at 6:02
  • $\begingroup$ @ymb1 Yes, maybe. To me, ryan's describing an FMS that's capable of identifying a point 1.5 DME from a VORTAC, and I don't really see what the difference is between that and a GPS that does the same thing. Both instruments load the VORTAC's position from a database (I assume) and they both tell you when you're 1.5 DME away. So I don't really get what's different about his scenario, although perhaps that's exactly the question! $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    May 30, 2018 at 13:45

1 Answer 1


I can't prove a negative, but as CrossRoads pointed out, the phrase "picture flying" isn't used on faa.gov. At least, neither Google nor faa.gov's own search engine turn up any hits.

I searched a bit further and I did find one specific match in a Bendix advert in the Feb 2, 1953 edition of Life:

Picture flying is the name pilots give to flying with OMNI-MAG. Merely by watching the pointer the pilot always knows where he is, where he is going, and how to get there

There's no real technical detail in the advert (it's actually an advert for Bendix television sets!) apart from mentioning that the OMNI-MAG uses VHF radio, but based on the picture it looks like a VOR receiver.

So, given that the FAA seems not to use the phrase at all and the only exact hit I could find was from 1953, I suspect that "picture flying" is an obsolete phrase for following a visual course indication. Before VORs, pilots used audio signals from a four-course radio range and the advert even mentions that they won't have to listen constantly any more.

That makes me think that the phrase arose around the time that radio navigation moved from audio to visual signals, to indicate that the pilot could now look at a visual indicator rather than just listen. That transition happened in the 1950s, so it would fit with the advert's publication.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ +1 for revealing that Bendix made televisions $\endgroup$
    – TomMcW
    May 30, 2018 at 18:56

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