I'm reading the BBC's How Fiji changed the way we travel; The little Pacific island nation was the first to incorporate GPS into its aviation system – and in doing so forever changed the way we get from Point A to distant Point B..

The article (and photos!) are quite interesting and worth a read. I'll quote just one paragraph below:

Fiji approached the US and its Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to volunteer as the testing ground for GPS navigation. The FAA agreed to fund the upgrade, supplying equipment and technical support in return for the knowledge it could take away from the trial. It would take well over a year to get the system ready; in addition to the installation of the equipment, new flight routes had to be charted, manuals developed and pilots and crew trained.

and later:

Fiji proved that GPS could improve aviation in myriad ways, making it faster, more efficient and safer. In the quarter century since Fiji adopted GPS navigation for its domestic flights, the technology has been adopted around the globe, often with the direct help of Fiji’s new experts.

I'm having trouble understanding what exactly Fiji did when it "incorporate(d) GPS into its aviation system". Does this refer to installing GPS receivers on domestic Fiji Airways planes and training only, or were there any hardware or procedural changes on the ground as well?

  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure if any other tags are appropriate... $\endgroup$ – uhoh Mar 4 '19 at 3:20
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    $\begingroup$ Most of what it did was probably just develop the RNAV approach system in use today, including charting out approach courses, minimums, etc. $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Mar 4 '19 at 3:26

This early ICAO document covering the introduction of GNSS (GPS) should cover the whole topic quite well. I would skip to section 3 (page 75) Information on Fiji’s Early Application of GPS Technology. But the highlights are effectively:

Fiji consists of 300 islands (mostly volcanic) scattered over 200 000 square miles of ocean. Of these, only 100 are inhabited. There are nineteen airfields, plus seven that are privately owned, but only five of the nineteen have NDBs and one has VOR-DME. This means that 80 per cent of the area is without any form of navigation aid. There are also helicopter and seaplane operations. Navigation has been accomplished primarily through visual flight rules or dead reckoning.


Fiji became involved in FANS and GPS in 1990/91 through briefings given by CAA Australia, and became convinced of the safety and cost benefits to be gained. Ad hoc trials, including long distance oceanic flights with a hand-held GPS receiver convinced Fiji of the potential of the GPS.


Under a Memorandum of Co-operation (MOC) the United States FAA provided equipment and operational and technical support to carry out trials and demonstrations. GPS receivers were provided for installation in all domestic IFR aircraft. These early receivers were not certified, and special procedures were developed to ensure that all the information provided by the GPS was confirmed by other navigation sources.


Some of the main features are listed here.

• GPS routes had been designed to all nineteen aerodromes. The GPS route charts show GPS airways and GPS way-points at the intersections.

• GPS checkpoints were established and surveyed on all the aerodromes, initially using a GPS receiver but now these have been resurveyed by an outside contractor to WGS-84.

• Outside areas of VOR/DME coverage, the pilot DR is now replaced by GPS procedures.

• Cloud break procedures were also designed to enable pilots to descend below cloud and make visual contact with the island, so that in most cases they leave a pilot at 1 000 ft above obstructions, five miles out, on the extended centre line. This information together with way-points were entered into the GPS receivers via data cards, by the CAA Fiji.

• Pilots and controllers were trained and examined on the rules and procedures. Pilots also had to undergo a practical test before being approved and pilots may not use the GPS unless they are approved.

• Based on this initial experience, the charts have been further simplified so that pilots can now select, on the GPS receiver, straight-in approach or cloud break, when this was needed.

This early 90's advertisement for Trimble GPS units also makes claims to being the ones that were used on these first approaches.

According to the document Fiji basically moved everything over to GPS; en-route navigation, approaches, the whole shebang. This helped them fly safer in IFR and have way more coverage than their limited ground based beacons gave them. The US helped not only create procedures, plates and information but also equipped all Fiji based operators and airfields.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for all the research! This was a quite a big project; I wonder if it's ever been written up in aviation journals. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Mar 4 '19 at 15:23

I couldn't find any other articles on the Fiji GPS trial so I'l make an educated guess... What it means is the US provided equipment and training for Fiji Airways, and the Fiji regulating authority approved the installed equipment for primary navigation within Fiji airspace, and it also sounds like they may have created and approved some non-precision approaches at outlying airports, allowing them to be used as IFR destinations and alternates where Fiji couldn't afford traditional radio-based NDB, VOR, or Localiser based approaches (Wide Area Augmentation System GPS precision approaches came much later so you wouldn't have had GPS replacing ILS approaches during that trial).

The article has that written-by-a-wide-eyed-layperson-journalist quality to it and makes it sound like airlines got around over the oceans only by celestial navigation and dead reckoning before GPS. The majors used Inertial Navigation, Omega, and Loran prior to GPS for oceanic navigation. Not quite as precise as GPS today, but good enough at the time. For a while, General Aviation had Loran C (Computerized Loran), quite popular in the 80s.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks! As far as "...provided equipment..." would that pretty much be the GPS receivers and modifications to the aircraft, or would there have been any equipment modified on the ground? I can't think of any, just wondering. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Mar 4 '19 at 4:17
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    $\begingroup$ Just airborne equipment. There wouldn't have been any ground based equipment until the ground based augmentation equipment that enhances the GPS signals for precision approaches came along, in the early 2000s. $\endgroup$ – John K Mar 4 '19 at 4:28

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