You’ve just finished washing your hands as you step over and wave them in front of the paper towel dispenser. It remains motionless. You wave again, but nothing happens. Maybe tap on it? That didn’t work. Ok, now you step back, walk forward again and try different variations of a wave, hoping nobody is around to see this unfolding. Still nothing happens. The automatic paper towel dispenser can be wonderful technology. It regulates the amount of paper used, eliminates germs from having to touch a lever and conveniently dispenses your paper towel – when it works. But if you’ve ever encountered one with a dead battery, or whatever ailment might fail a paper towel dispenser system, you don’t just lose the convenience of automated electronic dispensing. You lose the paper towel experience all together. There they are, all dry and nicely rolled, fresh and papery, but the roll is locked in its cage of plastic failure, completely inaccessible. There is no manual backup, so you don’t get your paper towel. Drip dry it is.
That’s how a lot of technology is, though. New tech will add convenience, usability, features, and possibly even revolutionize how its core function works, but it often comes with the price of the increased possibility of failure. In the airplane, practicing for failures and creating redundancies and backups is a way of life for pilots. New technology like GPS is incredibly useful, convenient, and so revolutionary that it’s making older systems obsolete. Much like our failed paper towel dispenser renders its product completely useless, so a failed iPad or GPS becomes an expensive paperweight, with no manual way to pump out the rolls of navigation it contains. When the GPS fails, better have a good backup system.
Up until GPS was prevalent, the VOR navigation system dominated the skies. Introduced throughout the 50s and 60s, it has seen a lot of use in airplanes and still does today. Some have discussed whether GPS will replace the VOR system and what the future holds for flying the VOR needle. With the visual ease of the moving maps that many pilots are using with GPS systems, yesterday’s VOR system can seem antiquated to a new generation of pilots with it’s swinging needle and course selector. But don’t give up on the VOR yet.
First, The Bad News
Since 2016, the FAA has been implementing plans to decommission a series of VOR stations across the country. The plan was implemented due to the high cost to maintain so many aging VOR stations along with the widespread use of newer technology like GPS. According to an AOPA article, the list began with 500 stations bound for shutdown, but with the help of AOPA’s involvement, the final list settled in around 300 stations. At the beginning of the decommissioning process, there were close to 1000 stations operating in the United States, so the system is slated to be cut by about a third.
The Good News
As stations that don’t meet certain criteria are shut down, the end goal is to have a Minimum Operating Network (MON) of VORs by 2025. This means that while some of the VORs are going away, there are still long term plans to keep an operating network across the United States, primarily so that airplanes can still navigate safely in the airspace system in the event of a GPS outage. Consider if you will, from days gone by, the payphone. Once cellular technology rendered payphones fairly useless for the majority of people, their use and presence started fading away. Nowadays, if you see a payphone, take a picture because they are a rare sight. Now when cell towers go down, few of us seem to have a backup plan. Sure, there are still phone lines, but it’s much less common to have a home phone line anymore (I personally don’t), and finding a phone to use on the road is tough. Nothing like the days of having a pay phone at pretty much every establishment and on every corner. Thankfully, the VOR network plans to remain a solid backup in even with better technology in place.
More Good News
With the money saved by dropping all of these VOR stations, the FAA plans to instead invest those dollars into today’s technology and develop the NextGen system. As a vast network of technologies on the horizon, NextGen aims to allow more aircraft into the airspace system, creating tools like 4D turbulence forecasts for pilots, text based transmission from ATC instead of all voice/radio communication, and knowing more than just an aircraft’s current position, but also its future position. The investment in NextGen with the maintaining of the VOR Minimum Operating Network means that we get to play with all the new toys, but we can still go old school when one of them breaks. Of course, this means that as pilots we need to stay sharp on both the new systems and the older systems like VOR, even if we are using GPS for our preferred method of navigation.
Over on the Clayviation YouTube channel, we’ve been working our way down to the Bahamas in a series called “Bucket List Flights: Bound For The Bahamas.” On each of the seven legs of the flight from middle Georgia to the Bahamas, we explore and build upon different modes of navigation as well as other aspects of the X-Plane 11 flight simulator. On the first leg, we departed from Augusta, Georgia (KAGS), and navigated using only pilotage and dead reckoning. We intentionally stayed away from any other navigational conveniences to sharpen our core skills. This week, we build upon our navigation skills with the addition of VOR navigation as we make it out to the coast. To spice things up, we throw a little weather in the mix and create a challenging situation to find our way to the airport. When you have a few minutes to sit back and enjoy the episode, fly along and be sure to subscribe to the channel while you’re there:
If you enjoyed this article, help Clayviation grow by sharing this with your friends and subscribing to our mailing list for great content each week! Follow us at Facebook.com/Clayviation and Twitter/Instagram @clayviation