How do VFR pilots know whether or not they are inside controlled airspace if they don't have GPS onboard?

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    $\begingroup$ Sad state of affairs when newer pilots have no idea how to get around the old way. GPS is starting to cause VFR pilots' navigation skills to atrophy and some day when a solar storm brings the whole satellilte array down, it's gonna be a problem. Always carry a paper chart, and use it from time to time. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Commented Jun 13, 2018 at 12:01
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnK - that's a typical grumpy old man argument about old ways fading. This is a non-argument because if a solar storm of that intensity happens, some VFR pilots being a bit lost will be least of our problems. $\endgroup$
    – Davor
    Commented Jun 13, 2018 at 14:04
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    $\begingroup$ Or when the government turns it off because of terror attacks or wartime necessity. Which also necessitates moving stuff. Railroads are chewing their fingernails off over that, because mandated Positive Train Control is a lot easier to build if you have GPS -- but you can't shut the railroads down in wartime, now can you? $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 13, 2018 at 16:46
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    $\begingroup$ I was a CFI about the time GPS started coming out in aviation. One of my best lessons was a fairly routine x-country flight with a student and his new GPS. He spent time setting it up, prepping the course, beginning the flight and starting to navigate off the GPS. About 10 minutes into the flight I reached up and flipped his GPS off. He flipped it back on. I turned it off again, and he asked me why I did that. I told him he just had a GPS failure; now what? After some grumbling, he broke out a sectional and plotter and navigated. Tech is very cool. But fundamentals are cooler when tech breaks. $\endgroup$
    – Shawn
    Commented Jun 14, 2018 at 17:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Davor: No, it'll be literally one of the big problems you have to worry about. It seems you overestimate how much it takes to knock out GPS. Over-reliance on GNSS in general is a huge problem worldwide and that's not a "typical grumpy old man argument" in the slightest. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 14, 2018 at 21:46

3 Answers 3


VFR aviation maps called "sectionals" (and now GPS map displays) depict the types of airspace through borders with different colors and dashed lines. You can buy or download the maps for free from this FAA site.

It is always the responsibility of a pilot to know where they are and follow all applicable laws. In the US, a pilot that breaks a rule because they didn't check NOTAM's can expect certificate action. NOTAM's will inform the pilot of TFR's, "hot" military zones, and other important regional and local (i.e. airport) regulatory information.

I got my PPL in 1975 and still carry maps with me. I plot an "X" along my route every 10min of flight time (20-30mi). As I reach each checkpoint, I follow a very old axiom, "Never.. Ever.. EVER!.. proceed to the next checkpoint until you identify where you are and what corrections are needed for the next checkpoint". In this manner, you can never be further than 1 or 2min and 1-2 mi from where you should be.

Even when sightseeing with no particular route, I routinely mark a map about every 10min with my location. In my 2500hrs of flying, the most I have ever been off in my navigation was 10mi (even when flying 1500mi x-country). So, knowing where you are is not difficult if you practice the skill.

The front of the map has a legend to remind pilots what the coloring stands for.

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Sectional map (US Gov public domain)

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Front map legend (US Gov public domain)

  • $\begingroup$ I got my ppl about 15 years ago but haven't been able to fly much because of school. I hope sectionals are still something they teach about when you learn! I'm shocked this is what the OP is taking about! $\endgroup$
    – kηives
    Commented Jun 13, 2018 at 19:22
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    $\begingroup$ It might be useful to note, that the symbols are not completely unified between different countries, so when flying internationally, mind to check the correct legend. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Commented Jun 13, 2018 at 19:38
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    $\begingroup$ @JanHudec not just symbols, but airspace names and procedures. Never assume that just because it works one way in the US it works that way everywhere. I'm currently working on my EASA PPL, 20 years of PC flight simulators helps a lot but procedures and stuff are quite different from how the sims portray them as they're built around US FAA procedures, not EASA procedures. $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Commented Jun 14, 2018 at 5:35
  • $\begingroup$ "Charts", not "maps". $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 14, 2018 at 6:30
  • $\begingroup$ The one major thing missing from this answer is how you identify where you are (in relation to your checkpoint). Ground references, VOR/DME, intersection of VORs, etc. Plotting where you are on the chart is impossible if you don't know where you are, which is really what the question is asking... $\endgroup$
    – mmathis
    Commented Jun 14, 2018 at 13:00

Use of a sectional chart and pilotage.

You will have to be aware of where you are using ground references while cross referencing where the boundaries of controlled airspace lies in relation to those references.

For example if you’re flying around to the west of John Tune (KJWN) airport in Nashville, TN and will notice the river bends near the airport. Anything to the east of them lies in the Nashville Class C shelf between 2400 and 4600 ft MSL. A similar process can be used to assess your position relative to the surface area of the Class C airspace.

enter image description here

You can also pinpoint your location if your aircraft has two NAV radios and OBS heads using the intersection of two VOR radials or one NAV radio and a DME by locating you polar position relative to the VOR.


Generally: By Using a (Physical) Map

Aviation charts have landmarks and airspaces on them, which you can use to estimate where you're at. Other answers give great examples of this already, I don't have to repeat it.

But I thought I could add some real life experience here:

1) Memorizing the Area

Glider pilots, especially trainees, often fly without maps and GPS. As they tend to stay close to their departure airfield, they can be sure to not get into controlled airspace. Trainees generally memorize beforehand where such airspace begins, for example at my old aviation club we knew we had to contact a nearby airfield when going above a certain altitude, and going past the nearby city to the north would also lead into that airspace.

This of course restricts these pilots to only flying within this well-known area, as anything beyond could or could not be controlled.

2) Planning a Route Ahead of Time

I have flown cross country without any GPS for training purposes when I was a student pilot. My trainer and I plotted our route using the map before even going to the airport. We planned to fly along highways and other highly visible landmarks in order to keep our orientation and avoid controlled airspace. This way we barely ever needed the map while flying and still knew where to go.

  • $\begingroup$ An iPad map would suffice. They're not Net connected in flight, are they? $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 13, 2018 at 19:01
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    $\begingroup$ @Harper, a paper map has a very, very important advantage—it can't run out of power! $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Commented Jun 13, 2018 at 19:42
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    $\begingroup$ Or overheat in a hot cockpit... $\endgroup$
    – Steve V.
    Commented Jun 13, 2018 at 20:30
  • $\begingroup$ @SteveV. clearly you've never had a map spontaneously combust in front of you. It's quite frightening! (I jest) $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 14, 2018 at 3:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Harper depending on the navigation app, some are some aren't. Those that are would require an iPad with 4G or a linked iPhone with a working hotspot. $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Commented Jun 14, 2018 at 5:36

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