This is something I have been questioning more and more often on how pilots do it. So, let's say we are flying on a new location and know very little about it. When flying around and keeping the location of the aerodrome we took off to later return back to it, how do we plan to consider which points to reference and which points represent what when flying?

Might be worth to mention VFR is in practice. Let us assume we do not have a GPS.

As an example where I have been flying I got references like a prison and a stadium that indicates a fly path back to the aerodrome, but I got to know those thanks to my instructor and become more aware of them. But when I think about it, at the start I had no idea. And when I consider way ahead once I have the ability to fly alone, I often think of how will I be able to understand which points references what, how can I quickly understand where I am and what is best for me to try and plan ahead to stay located when in flight.

Apologies if it is really obvious it is still something very recent to me and I have this worry recently. Just though it could be something I could start gain awareness, the sooner the better?

Thank you in advance!

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    $\begingroup$ Related: What are good apps to help with VFR navigation on my first solo? $\endgroup$
    – fooot
    Jan 16, 2019 at 16:36
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    $\begingroup$ It's something you get better at with practice and time in the air. Just keep at it. If no GPS, you can also use VFR radials to make sure you're near the right place/area. And often you can pick out large landmarks for reference also. Highways, radio towers water ways, etc. Circle them on your sectional/map and make sure to spot them as you go. $\endgroup$
    – CrossRoads
    Jan 16, 2019 at 16:59
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you @CrossRoads ! I am slowly pushing myself to become aware of them. Also need to look more at the map prior to next flights and, like you mentioned, try and become aware of it more often. Best practices from the start make up for the later eh? :) It does seem more reliable to go after landmarks like lakes and hills instead of buildings as I am not sure how can I quickly distinguish a building when flying :P $\endgroup$ Jan 16, 2019 at 17:30
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    $\begingroup$ Buildings are tough, unless they are quite large. Natural landmarks are often easier to spot as they are large and can be seen from quite a distance. For example, in my state we have a huge reservoir that feeds the large city on the coast (and many others as well). Easy to see from miles away, and I know I'm about 50 miles from home when I see it. $\endgroup$
    – CrossRoads
    Jan 16, 2019 at 17:33
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    $\begingroup$ Back when I was a boy hanging around airports, there was a saying, "I fly IFRRR." In other words, "I follow roads, railroads, and rivers." When flying with my father over the Iowa (a state in the American midwest) flatlands, if we got disoriented, we knew that all we had to do was look for the water tower every small town had, and on which in big letters was the name of the town. And it was not unheard of to simply land in a farmer's field, walk to the farmhouse, and ask where you were. In the American west, if you could see the mountain peaks, you knew where you were. It was a simpler time. $\endgroup$
    – Terry
    Jan 16, 2019 at 20:06

1 Answer 1


Many of the features marked on your sectional chart are there precisely because they're things a VFR pilot should be able to see from the air and use as landmarks for navigation using "pilotage".

If you're preparing for a cross-country trip, you start with a straight line from origin to destination than then adjust it slightly so that it passes over these features as checkpoints every 10-15nm, and you'd put each of those points in your nav log as your flight path. Then you do the additional calculations (wind, time, etc.) to turn that into something you could, if necessary, follow via "dead reckoning".

Even if you don't have GPS, you may have a VOR receiver (or ADF, if in a really old plane) that could be used as well. DPEs here require that you be able to use VORs to fix your location on a PPL checkride; I don't know if that's everywhere, but IMHO it's a good idea regardless.

If all else fails, or any time you are in immediate danger, you can always call ATC and ask for help. But until you've had the training on all the above options and demonstrated reasonable competency with them, your instructor shouldn't be allowing you to get yourself into such situations.

  • $\begingroup$ No, my instructor is quite great and I am confident he wouldn't allow me to go through such thing if I am not quite prepared :) It is just my mind starting to rumbling on it. Wandering how he does it so easily and wishing to be there! :) But thank you for your answer, all of this is amazing feedback to start being able to focus a little more every day, on this ^^ $\endgroup$ Jan 17, 2019 at 9:44

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