Ground-Based Navigation (Part One) – Very High Frequency (VHF) Omnidirectional Range (VOR)

Advances in navigational radio receivers installed in aircraft, the development of aeronautical charts that show the exact location of ground transmitting stations and their frequencies, along with refined flight deck instrumentation make it possible for pilots to navigate with precision to almost any point desired. Although precision in navigation is obtainable through the proper use of this equipment, beginning pilots should use this equipment to supplement navigation by visual reference to the ground (pilotage). This method provides the pilot with an effective safeguard against disorientation in the event of radio malfunction.

There are three radio navigation systems available for use for VFR navigation. These are:

  • VHF Omnidirectional Range (VOR)
  • Nondirectional Radio Beacon (NDB)
  • Global Positioning System (GPS)

Very High Frequency (VHF) Omnidirectional Range (VOR)

The VOR system is present in three slightly different navigation aids (NAVAIDs): VOR, VOR/distance measuring equipment (DME)(discussed in a later section), and VORTAC. By itself it is known as a VOR, and it provides magnetic bearing information to and from the station. When DME is also installed with a VOR, the NAVAID is referred to as a VOR/DME. When military tactical air navigation (TACAN) equipment is installed with a VOR, the NAVAID is known as a VORTAC. DME is always an integral part of a VORTAC. Regardless of the type of NAVAID utilized (VOR, VOR/DME, or VORTAC), the VOR indicator behaves the same. Unless otherwise noted in this section, VOR, VOR/DME, and VORTAC NAVAIDs are all referred to hereafter as VORs.

The prefix “omni-” means all, and an omnidirectional range is a VHF radio transmitting ground station that projects straight line courses (radials) from the station in all directions. From a top view, it can be visualized as being similar to the spokes from the hub of a wheel. The distance VOR radials are projected depends upon the power output of the transmitter.

The course or radials projected from the station are referenced to MN. Therefore, a radial is defined as a line of magnetic bearing extending outward from the VOR station. Radials are identified by numbers beginning with 001, which is 1° east of MN and progress in sequence through all the degrees of a circle until reaching 360. To aid in orientation, a compass rose reference to magnetic north is superimposed on aeronautical charts at the station location.

VOR ground stations transmit within a VHF frequency band of 108.0–117.95 MHz. Because the equipment is VHF, the signals transmitted are subject to line-of-sight restrictions. Therefore, its range varies in direct proportion to the altitude of receiving equipment. Generally, the reception range of the signals at an altitude of 1,000 feet above ground level (AGL) is about 40 to 45 miles. This distance increases with altitude. [Figure 16-28]

Figure 16-28. VHF transmissions follow a line-of-sight course.

Figure 16-28. VHF transmissions follow a line-of-sight course.

VORs and VORTACs are classed according to operational use. There are three classes:

  • T (Terminal)
  • L (Low altitude)
  • H (High altitude)

The normal useful range for the various classes is shown in the following table:

Normal Usable Altitudes and Radius Distances

Class Altitudes Distance (Miles)
T 12,000′ and below 25
L Below 18,000′ 40
H Below 14,500′ 40
H Within the conterminous 48 states only, between 14,500 and 17,999′ 100
H 18,000’—FL 450 130
H FL 450—60,000′ 100

The useful range of certain facilities may be less than 50 miles. For further information concerning these restrictions, refer to the Communication/NAVAID Remarks in the Chart Supplement U.S.


The accuracy of course alignment of VOR radials is considered to be excellent. It is generally within plus or minus 1°. However, certain parts of the VOR receiver equipment deteriorate, affecting its accuracy. This is particularly true at great distances from the VOR station. The best assurance of maintaining an accurate VOR receiver is periodic checks and calibrations. VOR accuracy checks are not a regulatory requirement for VFR flight. However, to assure accuracy of the equipment, these checks should be accomplished quite frequently and a complete calibration should be performed each year. The following means are provided for pilots to check VOR accuracy:

  • FAA VOR test facility (VOT)
  • Certified airborne checkpoints
  • Certified ground checkpoints located on airport surfaces

If an aircraft has two VOR receivers installed, a dual VOR receiver check can be made. To accomplish the dual receiver check, a pilot must tune both VOR receivers to the same VOR ground facility. The maximum permissible variation between the two indicated bearings is 4°. A list of the airborne and ground checkpoints is published in the Chart Supplement U.S.

Basically, these checks consist of verifying that the VOR radials the aircraft equipment receives are aligned with the radials the station transmits. There are not specific tolerances in VOR checks required for VFR flight. But as a guide to assure acceptable accuracy, the required IFR tolerances can be used—±4° for ground checks and ±6° for airborne checks. These checks can be performed by the pilot.

The VOR transmitting station can be positively identified by its Morse code identification or by a recorded voice identification that states the name of the station followed by “VOR.” Many FSSs transmit voice messages on the same frequency that the VOR operates. Voice transmissions should not be relied upon to identify stations because many FSSs remotely transmit over several omniranges that have names different from that of the transmitting FSS. If the VOR is out of service for maintenance, the coded identification is removed and not transmitted. This serves to alert pilots that this station should not be used for navigation. VOR receivers are designed with an alarm flag to indicate when signal strength is inadequate to operate the navigational equipment. This happens if the aircraft is too far from the VOR or the aircraft is too low and, therefore, is out of the line of sight of the transmitting signals.

Using the VOR

In review, for VOR radio navigation, there are two components required: ground transmitter and aircraft receiving equipment. The ground transmitter is located at a specific position on the ground and transmits on an assigned frequency. The aircraft equipment includes a receiver with a tuning device and a VOR or omninavigation instrument. The navigation instrument could be a course deviation indicator (CDI), horizontal situation indicator (HSI), or a radio magnetic indicator (RMI). Each of these instruments indicates the course to the tuned VOR.

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