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I am doing my PPL atm. I am struggling to navigate with a VFR sectional chart, I am getting lost more often. How do I fix this issue? Any tips?

  • I have trouble identifying small towns, identifying places if there are no big landmarks.
  • How do I identify places more accurately?
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  • $\begingroup$ If your question is "how to identify places with only a sectional chart on board?" the title should reflect it. As is, the title don't tell anything about identifying places. Moreover, as we are on a Q&A website, you should formulate the title as a question. $\endgroup$ – Manu H Oct 16 '19 at 7:57
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The trick is not to fixate on small details, but to scan on the chart along your route for landmarks and features that combine into large geometric shapes that are easy to pick out from the air (while cruising the higher the better).

Like; highway, river, and railway line that form some shape like a large 5 mile long triangle so that there is a unique pattern, with a town at some point on the triangle that makes it especially distinctive, to the left of your track.

Note that configuration on the map. Try to mentally compress it in your mind to allow for foreshortening because you will be initially viewing it at an angle. Look for its match on the ground, allowing for its location to be farther left or right than expected if you've drifted off track. As you find it and know where you are, scan ahead on the map for another easy to spot shape, as close as possible to your current position, note its distance, estimate the time to get there based on your ground speed and wait for it to appear.

Beyond that, it's mostly about establishing the correct heading to stay on track and holding it well, staying on top of your position and not allowing distractions to divert your attention too long as the world slides by below, and getting good at mentally projecting your progress based on known ground speed (like, you've been distracted for 5 minutes since your last known position, and if your ground speed is 2 miles per minute you should be between 9 and 11 miles away from it, so start looking for a recognizable geometric pattern ahead of you, say, 12 to 15 miles from last known).

A home computer flight sim like FSX or Xplane is really great for practicing this sort of thing on your own time.

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The way I was taught was not intuitive at first.

After letting me try my hand at flight planning on my own, the first thing my instructor told me to do was to stop trying to fly from visual reference point (VRP) to visual reference point. That is not the purpose of the landmarks.

Instead, plan a route that is as direct as possible. There are going to be times that you have to deviate from a true straight line course. Try to limit the number of changes in heading as much as possible.

Then, pick Your VRPs based on what would be visible from your route. For really large landmarks, that would limit the lateral distance from your route To a maximum 10 miles. You don’t have to fly directly over these VRPs. Flying abeam them is sufficient. Try to have you VRPs alternate each side of your airplane. That way they can bracket your course. Try to make your VRPs no more than 10 minutes apart. And, only make course direction changes at major, easily identifiable, VRPs.

Do NOT pick landmarks that can be easily mistaken for other landmarks. NOR landmarks that are so big that they become ambiguous. Cities are too big to use unless you use a point in the city. Small bodies of water can be misidentified unless combined with another VRP. Large bodies of water are too large to keep you on the right track. Only major highways can be used to fly roads. Power lines and other towers are harder to see at altitude than you think. Streams and small rivers can look completely different at different times.

Here is a list of good VRPs:
Airports with hard surfaces;
Major highway intersections;
Large bridges;
Dams;
Uniquely shaped bodies of water;
Familiar shopping malls;
Well marked sporting venues (when not in use);
Antennae Farms;
Wind turbine Fields;
Large groups of oil tanks;
MAJOR AND FAMILIAR geographic features;
Large industrial complexes like refineries & power plants;
Items on your sectional that are marked Visual Reference Points.

Use technology to assist you. Someone has already mentioned Google Earth. Review the satellite image of each of your VRPs in order and at the point of view and altitude of your flight. Also, ForeFlight has a 3D satellite review of your flight plan that you can watch at realistic speed or up to 20 times actual speed.

Cross reference your VRPs using VORs.

Don’t be afraid to fly from VOR to VOR if you are on Flight Following. As a matter of fact, don’t be afraid to fly Victor Airways if you are on Flight Following. And, by the way, USE FLIGHT FOLLOWING. It’s hard to stay lost when someone always knows where you are.

Remember the 10x10 rule. Your VRPs should be no more than 10 miles off of your course and no more than 10 minutes between each other.

File, open, and close a flight plan.

I hope this helps.
CAVU and smooth air.

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John K pretty much totally nailed in his answer, as a sort of a side note I'd like to add that it helps to understand how we perceive things:

We do not see everything around us: if we did, our brains would explode in less than a microsecond because of information overload. Our visual cortex is only triggered by stuff our deeper "processes" regard as obstacles or threats, and by things we are looking for.

Then category of "things we are looking for" must be correctly tuned to work. This is what Jonh K well addressed in his answer. If you are looking for forms and shapes as they appear in the map, your eyes, or actually your brain will not be able to catch them in the landscape around you because they do not manifest as on the map. You first have to translate the map in your mind to the perspective you see from your seat, only then will you have any chance of seeing things you are looking for.

I would not worry, this is something that can totally be learned, the difficulty is that the best way to learn it is by doing it, and the only thing that comes close is, as John K suggested, is using a simulator. Unfortunately simulators have the drawback of delivering the landscape to us in 2d format (flat screen), so it is a bit different from the real thing, but definitely helps in teaching your head the fine art of translating the 2d map to 3d expectation to look for.

If you think you can see things you are not looking for, try this classic experiment yourself: The selective attention test by Simons & Chabris

P.S. I presume you are holding the map aligned to your flight path, and roughly following your position on the map with your thumb? There's no need to make things more difficult than they are :)

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Once you identify a landmark on the chart, go to Google Earth (in a web browser) and look for that landmark. You can position yourself and the approximate flying altitude and attitude and see how your landmark would look like from the airplane. You can even overfly your entire route on Google Earth (it would look closer to reality that in a simulator). This method is also useful for locating obstacles mentioned in the Airport/Facility Directory around airports (antenna towers are a bit tricky to see).

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My advice as a CFI is to pick waypoints that:

1) Readily identifiable and distinct when viewed from all directions. Many people select waypoints like small airports, country roads, etc without really being awareness of how easy these are going to be to spot from the air. Good waypoints are natural things like oxbow lakes or bends along a river, tips of finger lakes, small buttes, small lakes or ponds. Many man made features are excellent references like power plants, freeway interchanges, concrete plants, substations, sport stadiums, pit mines, small isolated towns in the countryside, prisons, large bridges, water towers, dams, etc. Major airports may be used but I’d refrain from using small, country airports as they are often very difficult to pick out from the countryside if you are unfamiliar with the area. In addition, I like to review satellite photos using Google Earth, etc over the proposed route and see if all my selected points are readily identifiable.

2) For whatever visual waypoint you choose, make sure there are other visual references nearby which you can orient yourself to to locate your position relative to your chosen waypoint. For example, you’re flying towards a bridge which is your chosen waypoint and you spot a finger lake a mile or so directly to the left of the bridge. You can use this to determine when you have crossed your chosen waypoint by noting when the finger lake is directly off your wingtip and you were tracking directly toward the bridge.

The 3D trip simulator in ForeFlight is an excellent way to do a practice fly through of a proposed CC route and make sure you can easily spot all your waypoints and visual references.

3) If you’re flying an airplane with conventional instruments and a free gyro heading indicator BE SURE TO A) ALIGN THE HEADING INDICATOR TO YOUR MAG COMPASS BEFORE BEGINNING YOUR TAKEOFF ROLL AND B) PERIODICALLY RE-ALIGN THE HEADING INDICATOR WITH THE MAG COMPASS EVERY 15 MINUTES WHILE ENROUTE WITH THE AIRCRAFT IN STRAIGHT AND LEVEL FLIGHT. You wouldn’t believe the number of solo CC students who depart on a flight and head off into the boonies because the completely forget to do this!

4) Be in a position to get a good view of your waypoints. I personally prefer to select a VFR cruise altitude of between 4000-5000 ft AGL, obstacle clearance and aircraft performance permitting. This provides a good ‘perch’ for navigating by pilotage, high enough that ground clutter can’t obscure your view, but not so high that it becomes difficult to spot visual details.

5) Never select visual waypoints more than 20NM apart. This will help to both minimize wind drift errors and corrections and 2) keeps you relatively local in the event you really do get lost and require ATC assistance to locate your craft.

6) Get the latest winds aloft forecasts and re-compute your magnetic headings, preferably less than 1 hour before your scheduled departure. This should help minimize wind drift errors.

7) Log all of your times on each enroute segment and compare these to your ETE for each segment. Note any differences in your position relative to your waypoint and update your actual winds aloft using an E6B periodically.

8) In the movie The Patriot, Mel Gibson’s character advises his son that to shoot a gun accurately, he must aim small so as to miss small. This is very good advice for good cross country navigation as well. Make a deliberate effort to fly good straight and level segments with as minimal deviation from one’s desired magnetic heading as possible. The best way to do so is once on course, pick a reference point in the distance eg a distinct farm field, a cloud, etc and just hold the nose on that point with very tiny aileron inputs. This will minimize course tracking errors.

9) You can periodically identify your position using two VORs to get a fix. Verify you are still on course and where you intended to be when you intended to be. NOTE: Be sure to identify each VOR with the Morse Code tone to verify that they are working properly!

10) Finally if you do actually get lost, remember to use the 6Cs - CLIMB, CIRCLE, CONSERVE, CALL, CONFESS, COMPLY to find your way back to your destination.

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