Airborne Navigation Databases (Part One)

The capabilities of airborne navigation databases depend largely on the way they are implemented by the avionics manufacturers. They can provide data about a large variety of locations, routes, and airspace segments for use by many different types of RNAV equipment. Databases can provide pilots with information regarding airports, air traffic control (ATC) frequencies, runways, and special use airspace. Without airborne navigation databases, RNAV would be extremely limited. In order to understand the capabilities and limitations of airborne navigation databases, pilots must understand the way databases are compiled and revised by the database provider and processed by the avionics manufacturer. Vital to this discussion is understanding of the regulations guiding database maintenance and use.

 

There are many different types of RNAV systems certified for instrument flight rules (IFR) use in the National Airspace System (NAS). The two most prevalent types are GPS and the multisensory FMS. [Figure 6-2] A modern GPS unit accurately provides the pilot with the aircraft’s present position; however, it must use an airborne navigation database to determine its direction or distance from another location. The database provides the GPS with position information for navigation fixes so it may perform the required geodetic calculations to determine the appropriate tracks, headings, and distances to be flown. [Figure 6-3]

Figure 6-2. GPS with a flight route on display.

Figure 6-2. GPS with a flight route on display.

Figure 6-3. FMS display.

Figure 6-3. FMS display. [click image to enlarge]

Modern FMS are capable of a large number of functions including basic en route navigation, complex departure and arrival navigation, fuel planning, and precise vertical navigation. Unlike stand-alone navigation systems, most FMS use several navigation inputs. Typically, they formulate the aircraft’s current position using a combination of conventional distance measuring equipment (DME) signals, inertial navigation systems (INS), GPS receivers, or other RNAV devices. Like stand-alone navigation avionics, they rely heavily on airborne navigation databases to provide the information needed to perform their numerous functions.

 

Airborne Navigation Database Standardization

Beginning in the 1970s, the requirement for airborne navigation databases became more critical. In 1973, National Airlines installed the Collins ANS-70 and AINS70 RNAV systems in their DC-10 fleet, which marked the first commercial use of avionics that required navigation databases. A short time later, Delta Air Lines implemented the use of an ARMA Corporation RNAV system that also used a navigation database. Although the type of data stored in the two systems was basically identical, the designers created the databases to solve the individual problems of each system, which meant that they were not interchangeable. As the implementation of RNAV systems expanded, a world standard for airborne navigation databases was needed.

In 1973, Aeronautical Radio, Inc. (ARINC) sponsored the formation of a committee to standardize aeronautical databases. In 1975, the committee published the first standard, ARINC Specification 424, which has remained the worldwide accepted format for transmission of navigation databases.

ARINC 424

ARINC 424 is the air transport industry’s recommended standard for the preparation and transmission of data for the assembly of airborne system navigation databases. The data is intended for merging with the aircraft navigation system software to provide a source of navigation reference. Each subsequent version of ARINC 424 Specification provides additional capability for navigation systems to utilize. Merging of ARINC 424 data with each manufacturer’s system software is unique and ARINC 424 leg types provide vertical guidance and ground track for a specific flight procedure. These leg types must provide repeatable flight tracks for the procedure design. The navigation database leg type is the path and terminator concept.

ARINC 424 Specification describes 23 leg types by their path and terminator. The path describes how the aircraft gets to the terminator by flying direct (a heading, a track, a course, etc.). The terminator is the event or condition that causes the navigation computer system to switch to the next leg (a fix, an altitude, an intercept, etc.). When a flight procedure instructs the pilot to fly runway heading to 2000 feet then direct to a fix, this is the path and terminator concept. The path is the heading and the terminator is 2000 feet. The next leg is then automatically sequenced. A series of leg types are coded into a navigation database to make a flight procedure. The navigation database allows an FMS or GPS navigator to create a continuous display of navigational data, thus enabling an aircraft to be flown along a specific route. Vertical navigation can also be coded.

The data included in an airborne navigation database is organized into ARINC 424 records. These records are strings of characters that make up complex descriptions of each navigation entity. ARINC records can be sorted into four general groups: fix records, simple route records, complex route records, and miscellaneous records. Although it is not important for pilots to have in-depth knowledge of all the fields contained in the ARINC 424 records, pilots should be aware of the types of records contained in the navigation database and their general content.

 

Fix Records

Database records that describe specific locations on the face of the earth can be considered fix records. Navigational aids (NAVAIDs), waypoints, intersections, and airports are all examples of this type of record. These records can be used directly by avionics systems and can be included as parts of more complex records like airways or approaches.

Another concept pilots should understand relates to how aircraft make turns over navigation fixes. Fixes can be designated as fly-over or fly-by, depending on how they are used in a specific route. [Figure 6-4] Under certain circumstances, a navigation fix is designated as fly-over. This simply means that the aircraft must actually pass directly over the fix before initiating a turn to a new course. Conversely, a fix may be designated fly-by, allowing an aircraft’s navigation system to use its turn anticipation feature, which ensures that the proper radius of turn is commanded to avoid overshooting the new course. Some RNAV systems are not programmed to fully use this feature. It is important to remember a fix can be coded as fly-over and fly-by in the same procedure, depending on how the fix is used (i.e., holding at an initial approach fix). RNAV or GPS stand-alone IAPs are flown using data pertaining to the particular IAP obtained from an onboard database to include the sequence of all waypoints used for the approach and missed approach, except that step down waypoints may not be included in some TSO-C129 receiver databases. Included in the database, in most receivers, is coding that informs the navigation system of which WPs are fly-over or fly-by. The navigation system may provide guidance appropriately to include leading the turn prior to a fly-by waypoint; or causing over flight of a fly-over waypoint. Where the navigation system does not provide such guidance, the pilot must accomplish the turn lead or waypoint over flight manually. Chart symbology for the flyby waypoint provides pilot awareness of expected actions.

Figure 6-4. Fly-by-waypoints and fly-over-waypoints.

Figure 6-4. Fly-by-waypoints and fly-over-waypoints. [click image to enlarge]

Simple Route Records

Route records are those that describe a flightpath instead of a fixed position. Simple route records contain strings of fix records and information pertaining to how the fixes should be used by the navigation avionics.

A Victor Airway, for example, is described in the database by a series of en route airway records that contain the names of fixes in the airway and information about how those fixes make up the airway.