Operational Limitations of Airborne Navigation Databases
Understanding the capabilities and limitations of the navigation systems installed in an aircraft is one of the pilot’s biggest concerns for IFR flight. Considering the vast number of RNAV systems and pilot interfaces available today, it is critical that pilots and flight crews be familiar with the manufacturer’s operating manual for each RNAV system they operate and achieve and retain proficiency operating those systems in the IFR environment.
Most professional and general aviation pilots are familiar with the possible human factors issues related to flightdeck automation. It is particularly important to consider those issues when using airborne navigation databases. Although modern avionics can provide precise guidance throughout all phases of flight, including complex departures and arrivals, not all systems have the same capabilities.
RNAV equipment installed in some aircraft is limited to direct route point-to-point navigation. Therefore, it is very important for pilots to familiarize themselves with the capabilities of their systems through review of the manufacturer documentation. Most modern RNAV systems are contained within an integrated avionics system that receives input from several different navigation and aircraft system sensors. These integrated systems provide so much information that pilots may sometimes fail to recognize errors in navigation caused by database discrepancies or misuse. Pilots must constantly ensure that the data they enter into their avionics is accurate and current. Once the transition to RNAV is made during a flight, pilots and flight crews must always be capable and ready to revert to conventional means of navigation if problems arise.
Closed Indefinitely Airports
Some U.S. airports have been closed for up to several years, with little or no chance that they will ever reopen; yet their “indefinite” closure status – as opposed to permanent or UFN closure, or abandonment – causes them to continue to appear on both VFR and IFR charts and in airborne navigation databases; and their instrument approach procedures, if any, continue to be included – and still appear to be valid – in the paper and electronic versions of the United States Terminal Procedures Publication (TPP) charts. Airpark South, 2K2, at Ozark, Missouri, is a case in point.
Even though this airport has been closed going on two years and, due to industrial and residential development surrounding it, likely will never be reopened, the airport is nonetheless still charted in a way that could easily lead a pilot to believe that it is still open and operating. Even the current U.S. Low Altitude En route chart displays a blue symbol for this airport, indicating that it still has a Department of Defense (DOD) approved instrument approach procedure available for use.
Aircrews need to use caution when selecting an airport in a cautionary or emergency situation, especially if the airport was not previously analyzed suitable for diversion during preflight. Aircrews could assume, based on charts and their FMS database, the airport is suitable and perhaps the only available diversionary or emergency option. The airport however, could be closed and hazardous even for emergency use. In these situations, Air Traffic Control may be queried for the airport’s status.
As the data in a worldwide database grows, the required data storage space increases. Over the years that panel- mounted GPS and FMSs have developed, the size of the commercially available airborne navigation databases has grown exponentially.
Some manufacturer’s systems have kept up with this growth and some have not. Many of the limitations of older RNAV systems are a direct result of limited data storage capacity. For this reason, avionics manufacturers must make decisions regarding which types of procedures will be included with their system. For instance, older GPS units rarely include all of the waypoints that are coded into master databases. Even some modern FMS equipment, which typically have much larger storage capacity, do not include all of the data that is available from the database producers. The manufacturers often choose not to include certain types of data that they think is of low importance to the usability of the unit. For example, manufacturers of FMS used in large airplanes may elect not to include airports where the longest runway is less than 3,000 feet or to include all the procedures for an airport.
Manufacturers of RNAV equipment can reduce the size of the data storage required in their avionics by limiting the geographic area the database covers. Like paper charts, the amount of data that needs to be carried with the aircraft is directly related to the size of the coverage area. Depending on the data storage that is available, this means that the larger the required coverage area, the less detailed the database can be.
Again, due to the wide range of possible storage capacities, and the number of different manufacturers and product lines, the manufacturer’s documentation is the pilot’s best source of information regarding limitations caused by storage capacity of RNAV avionics.
It is important for pilots to remember that many inconsistencies may exist between aeronautical charts and airborne navigation databases. Since there are so many sources of information included in the production of these materials, and the data is manipulated by several different organizations before it is eventually displayed on RNAV equipment, the possibility is high that there will be noticeable differences between the charts and the databases. Because of this, pilots must be familiar with the capabilities of the database and have updated aeronautical charts while flying to ensure the proper course is being flown.