If you’ve ever seen inside the cockpit of an airplane, then you might know that there isn’t much to see while you’re in the air. Apart from a sea of clouds and empty sky, and the occasional glimpse of the world below, there really isn’t any way for a pilot to see where they are going.
And without any visible landmarks or signposts, you may be wondering just how pilots know where to go.
If you’ve ever wondered how pilots know where they need to fly, then puzzle no longer! In this article, we’ll teach you everything there is to know about how pilots navigate the skies to get to their destination.
How Do Pilots Fly
Pilots use a variety of different methods to find their way around the sky. Some of these methods include using maps, compasses, GPS systems, celestial navigation, and more.
But before we dive into all of those things, let’s take a look at what it means to “fly” a plane in some different contexts.
When most people think about flying, it’s typically to do with a commercial flight on a large airplane. However, the way these are flown is different to how, say, a helicopter or a small private jet is piloted.
For example, on a commercial airline, the pilots must follow a strict pre-planned route set out in advance by the airport and air traffic control.
By using a combination of various instruments, input from air traffic control, and their own vision, pilots are able to navigate to their destination.
Smaller, personal aircraft, such as helicopters and private jets, have a much more hands-on approach to navigation.
Without much input from air traffic control (especially if you’re flying outside their range) and a greater reliance on directing the plane yourself, these kinds of flights are harder to navigate. Nevertheless, pilots are still able to tell where they are going – even in the middle of the night!
So How Do Pilots Know Where They Are Going?
As we mentioned earlier, pilots rely on a multitude of instruments and other things to safely navigate the sky and reach their destination.
But just what are these instruments, and how do pilots use them? Here’s a breakdown of some of the ways that pilots can tell where they’re going.
A map is one of the first tools that pilots will turn to when navigating. A map shows the location of airports, cities, and towns, as well as roads and highways.
Even if your view of the ground is limited, by using a map in addition to other forms of navigation, pilots can compare their view to the map to tell where they are. It also helps the pilot to plan out their route in advance.
Pilot maps (also known as aviation charts) aren’t just used to find locations; they also have information about the height of tall buildings and structures, the locations of power lines, and common aviation routes through the area.
2. Pilotage And Local Knowledge
These two methods are similar to each other, and are most commonly used in tandem with aviation charts. Local knowledge is essentially what it sounds like – if the pilot is familiar with an area, then they can put this knowledge to good use while navigating.
Pilotage is similar to this, but involves the pilot looking out the cockpit at the surrounding area to refer against a map or some other navigational tool.
While pilotage might sound like using a map, it is pretty much the opposite – it means that a pilot studies their surroundings to try and find a landmark that will let them find their position on the map, instead of the other way around.
GPS stands for Global Positioning System, which is a satellite-based system that allows us to pinpoint our exact location anywhere on Earth. This is great for finding your way on the ground, but it’s also an essential tool for pilots to use to know where they are going.
Pilots use GPS for several reasons; not only does it let the pilot know exactly where they are, but it can also be used to create waypoints that form a route to their destination.
Most commonly used air traffic routes (such as those used for commercial flights) will have established GPS routes and waypoints so the pilots can stay on track.
4. Directions From Air Traffic Control
Air traffic controllers are responsible for keeping planes safe during flight. To do this, they must keep tabs on all the planes flying around them. As a result, they have access to a lot of information about the flight paths of different planes.
The controller uses this information to help pilots avoid collisions, and to direct them toward landing points.
Air traffic control can only direct pilots within a certain range and within set paths; as a result, private flights that aren’t on commercial flight routes won’t be able to be guided by air traffic control.
5. Using Flight Instruments
While many instruments that pilots use are simply to help them keep control of their plane and monitor the conditions both inside and outside their aircraft, they are still able to give the pilot some insight into where they are going.
For example, altimeters measure how high up you are above sea level, and can be used to calculate distance from the surface below.
They can also be used to determine the direction that the plane is heading. Similarly, airspeed indicators show the speed of the air outside the plane, which helps pilots keep control and navigate.
Finally, navigational beacons across the world send out specific radio frequencies that pilots can tune into – by directing their plane towards the right beacon, pilots can find their way even in tricky conditions.
There are many ways that pilots can navigate through the skies.
Whether it’s through the use of their instruments, directions given by air traffic control, or just by navigating through sight alone, pilots have plenty of tools at their disposal when it comes to knowing where they are going.
So next time you’re in a plane, don’t worry – while you might not be able to tell where you are by looking out your window, you can rest assured that your pilot knows exactly where they are and where to go!
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