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?
  • $\begingroup$ 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

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.


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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