“Hey Siri, set a timer for 14 minutes.” Out of all the high tech stuff that can be done today, I’m always the most amused that when I put my eggs on to boil every morning, I can speak that statement out loud and then my phone, which is across the room, responds with, “ok, setting a timer for 14 minutes.” And with a British accent for a bonus.

We are very fortunate to live in a time with such booming technology. Some of the technology can be appreciated for its role in getting us to where we are, but then is best left in the past. Cassette tapes, for example, served their role, but are far inferior to the cd’s, mp3’s and streaming music we have today with their instantaneous playback of impeccable quality. But then there are records. They aren’t portable (can you imagine a record player you can strap to your arm for a run?), they are delicate, and they require a specific machine and the needle in just the right place. And don’t you dare scratch it. There are lots of downsides, but there are still record stores selling records. Why is that? They might not be practical, but they are appreciated. Although technology has surpassed records for their everyday, practical use, there are those who still collect, cherish and use them.  Some new bands even release a record option of their album. More than just for collection or nostalgia, many record aficionados will tell you that it’s because of the pure sound quality.  When you love an album, there is nothing better than having it on vinyl. There is value in going old school, and qualities that the convenience of newer technology can’t completely replace.

Aviation has it parallels to this concept as well. I don’t envy the technology of early aviation. I don’t know how they did it. “They were real pilots,” some might say. “Flying by the seat of their pants, not by a magenta line.” I love my iPad, and I love my GPS, but every pilot needs to have some fundamental navigation skills at the core of their flying. Before we had the technology, pilots relied on two critical skills: pilotage and dead reckoning. And while we (thankfully) don’t have to rely solely on pilotage and dead reckoning for navigation these days, they should still be alive and well at the core of any pilot’s skills and abilities. You have to walk before you can fly, so let’s take a walk though these fundamental navigation concepts.

The first time I flew with Foreflight on my iPad, it was magical. There it was, the same sectional chart I’m used to flying with, but with my exact location pinpointed with a little airplane. Up to that point, I had to work hard to mentally superimpose my airplane on the sectional chart. “With this town to my left, and this river on my right, I must be right about here.” For a moment, I knew exactly where I was on the map. But minutes later, I’m back to comparing things on the map to things down below. “This bridge over the lake is over there, and I can see those stacks in the distance, so I must be in this region.”

It’s a bit of an exhausting game to play, and the iPad made it feel like I had entered a cheat code to unlock pilotage mode level pro. Even with that wonderful technology, being able to pinpoint your position by looking outside of the airplane is more important than just a backup to a failed GPS or iPad. It’s a skill that can manifest itself in a multitude of situations. For instance, I often observe features like power lines and fences when I’m driving around, pondering what they look like from the air in the event I had to select a field to land resulting from an engine failure. I like to know more about my surroundings in the air than simply if I am on or off my magenta line. I occasionally fly the leg of a route without a GPS or iPad just to keep my skills sharp.

VFR Sectional Map

The bread and butter of navigation, pilotage is knowing where you are on the map by what you see outside.


Dead Reckoning
Pilotage works well for establishing situational awareness, and you might could get away with it as a standalone navigation technique if you were flying in an environment rich with visual cues. It’s usually not that simple, though. Knowing which heading to fly is vital not only to avoid constantly guessing at corrections, but also to maintain your intended track over areas with fewer visual cues. Oh, and there’s wind. Especially at cruising altitude, there’s usually a good wind coming from somewhere. Thus, knowing that you need to head due south to your destination doesn’t help much if you have a strong wind from the west pushing you off course. To compensate, you’ll have to point your nose upwind a little to keep a straight ground track. But how much? Ah, now we’re on to the dead reckoning, which is the was that we calculate our flight path based on variables like winds, speed, distance and time.

Heading Into Wind

This airplane is flying a straight course over the ground, although it looks like it’s pointed to the right.  It’s flight path is to the right because the wind is from the right, but that heading adjustment keeps a straight course over the ground.  Calculating how much adjustment is needed is where dead reckoning comes in.


Since we’re just chatting about the concept of dead reckoning, I’ll try to simplify the planning a course into this series of steps.  We can dig deeper into the nuances in a later session. The heading you need to fly to maintain course is determined by following this series of steps:
-Measure your true course on the chart with a plotter.
-Calculate your wind correction angle using either an electronic or manual E6B flight computer. Remember that winds aloft forecasts are given in relation to true North, so calculate using true winds and true course.
-Apply magnetic variation, which is a number that factors in the difference in true north and magnetic north where you are flying. Look for a dashed line with the number of degrees East or West on the map. You add West variation from your course and subtract East variation. To remember, use “East is least (subtract) and West is best (add).”
-Apply magnetic deviation, which is specific to your airplane. This is a heading adjustment based on how the electronics in the airplane affect the compass. There is a compass card by the magnetic compass to show you how much to adjust based on the heading you are flying.

Heading To Fly

This diagram shows the net effects of an airplane flying 115 knots along a course (ground track) of 123 degrees.  With a wind blowing 20 knots from the west, and a magnetic variation of 7 degrees West, the resulting compass heading to fly is 135 degrees.  That will produce a speed of 131 knots over the ground.  These calculations keep the airplane on course and take advantage of 16 knots of speed over the ground!


That’s a lot of factors to consider just to arrive at a heading to fly, but when your math works out to keep you right on course, it’s incredibly satisfying. Ultimately, this data is calculated and collected on a flight log, which can be as simple or as complicated as you wish. Some like to make their own in Excel, but you can find some online for free to download.

In today’s iPad and glass cockpit environment, I hope to see that new pilots continue to learn and hone their pilotage and dead reckoning skills from the beginning. Some instructors won’t allow iPad or GPS use until the fundamentals of pilotage and dead reckoning are learned and demonstrated. A friend of mine who is learning to fly recently had a lesson where the flight was conducted by reference to the roads and landmarks below. Navigating by a known route over the roads sharpened his ability to identify landmarks and features from the air that he passes on his daily commute. That’s developing some great pilotage skills. I’m a big fan of that tradition, and while I hope to never find myself in a situation where I have to fly for hours using only a flight log, manual E6B and paper sectional chart, I want to always know that I can.

For a taste of these concepts in action, watch the first leg of a new series on the Clayviation YouTube channel called “Bucket List Flights: Bound For The Bahamas.” I’ve always wanted to take a Cessna down the coast and over to the Bahamas, so I’m doing it in X-Plane 11. On each leg of the flight, we’ll get a little closer to the Bahamas while discussing different aviation concepts and helpful bits to get more out of the simulator. The first leg is themed “Pilotage & Dead Reckoning,” so we depart from Augusta, Georgia (KAGS) and head towards the coast using only heading calculations, our trusty sectional chart and what we see outside. Come fly along:

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  1. VOR Navigation: A Worthy Backup | Clayviation - […] simulator. On the first leg, we departed from Augusta, Georgia (KAGS), and navigated using only pilotage and dead reckoning.…

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