Ground-Based Navigation (Part Six) – Global Positioning System

Global Positioning System

The GPS is a satellite-based radio navigation system. Its RNAV guidance is worldwide in scope. There are no symbols for GPS on aeronautical charts as it is a space-based system with global coverage. Development of the system is underway so that GPS is capable of providing the primary means of electronic navigation. Portable and yoke-mounted units are proving to be very popular in addition to those permanently installed in the aircraft. Extensive navigation databases are common features in aircraft GPS receivers.


The GPS is a satellite radio navigation and time dissemination system developed and operated by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). Civilian interface and GPS system status is available from the U.S. Coast Guard.

It is not necessary to understand the technical aspects of GPS operation to use it in VFR/IFR navigation. It does differ significantly from conventional, ground-based electronic navigation and awareness of those differences is important. Awareness of equipment approvals and limitations is critical to the safety of flight.

The GPS navigation system broadcasts a signal that is used by receivers to determine precise position anywhere in the world. The receiver tracks multiple satellites and determines a pseudorange measurement to determine the user location. A minimum of four satellites is necessary to establish an accurate three-dimensional position. The Department of Defense (DOD) is responsible for operating the GPS satellite constellation and monitors the GPS satellites to ensure proper operation.

The status of a GPS satellite is broadcast as part of the data message transmitted by the satellite. GPS status information is also available from the U.S. Coast Guard navigation information service at (703) 313-5907 or online at www. Additionally, satellite status is available through the NOTAM system.

The GPS receiver verifies the integrity (usability) of the signals received from the GPS constellation through receiver autonomous integrity monitoring (RAIM) to determine if a satellite is providing corrupted information. At least one satellite, in addition to those required for navigation, must be in view for the receiver to perform the RAIM function; thus, RAIM needs a minimum of five satellites in view or four satellites and a barometric altimeter (baro-aiding) to detect an integrity anomaly. For receivers capable of doing so, RAIM needs six satellites in view (or five satellites with baro-aiding) to isolate the corrupt satellite signal and remove it from the navigation solution. Baro-aiding is a method of augmenting the GPS integrity solution by using a nonsatellite input source. GPS derived altitude should not be relied upon to determine aircraft altitude since the vertical error can be quite large and no integrity is provided. To ensure that baro-aiding is available, the current altimeter setting must be entered into the receiver as described in the operating manual.

RAIM messages vary somewhat between receivers; however, generally there are two types. One type indicates that there are not enough satellites available to provide RAIM integrity monitoring and another type indicates that the RAIM integrity monitor has detected a potential error that exceeds the limit for the current phase of flight. Without RAIM capability, the pilot has no assurance of the accuracy of the GPS position.


Selective Availability

Selective Availability (SA) is a method by which the accuracy of GPS is intentionally degraded. This feature is designed to deny hostile use of precise GPS positioning data. SA was discontinued on May 1, 2000, but many GPS receivers are designed to assume that SA is still active.

The baseline GPS satellite constellation consists of 24 satellites positioned in six earth-centered orbital planes with four operation satellites and a spare satellite slot in each orbital plane. The system can support a constellation of up to thirty satellites in orbit. The orbital period of a GPS satellite is one-half of a sidereal day or 11 hours 58 minutes. The orbits are nearly circular and equally spaced about the equator at a 60-degree separation with an inclination of 55 degrees relative to the equator. The orbital radius (i.e. distance from the center of mass of the earth to the satellite) is approximately 26,600 km.

With the baseline satellite constellation, users with a clear view of the sky have a minimum of four satellites in view. It is more likely that a user would see six to eight satellites. The satellites broadcast ranging signals and navigation data allowing users to measure their pseudoranges in order to estimate their position, velocity and time, in a passive, listen-only mode. The receiver uses data from a minimum of four satellites above the mask angle (the lowest angle above the horizon at which a receiver can use a satellite). The exact number of satellites operating at any one particular time varies depending on the number of satellite outages and operational spares in orbit. For current status of the GPS constellation, please visit [Figure 16-40]

Figure 16-40. Satellite constellation.

Figure 16-40. Satellite constellation.

VFR Use of GPS

GPS navigation has become a great asset to VFR pilots providing increased navigation capability and enhanced situational awareness while reducing operating costs due to greater ease in flying direct routes. While GPS has many benefits to the VFR pilot, care must be exercised to ensure that system capabilities are not exceeded.

Types of receivers used for GPS navigation under VFR are varied from a full IFR installation being used to support a VFR flight to a VFR only installation (in either a VFR or IFR capable aircraft) to a hand-held receiver. The limitations of each type of receiver installation or use must be understood by the pilot to avoid misusing navigation information. In all cases, VFR pilots should never rely solely on one system of navigation. GPS navigation must be integrated with other forms of electronic navigation, as well as pilotage and dead reckoning. Only through the integration of these techniques can the VFR pilot ensure accuracy in navigation. Some critical concerns in VFR use of GPS include RAIM capability, database currency, and antenna location.


RAIM Capability

Many VFR GPS receivers and all hand-held units are not equipped with RAIM alerting capability. Loss of the required number of satellites in view, or the detection of a position error, cannot be displayed to the pilot by such receivers. In receivers with no RAIM capability, no alert would be provided to the pilot that the navigation solution had deteriorated and an undetected navigation error could occur. A systematic cross-check with other navigation techniques would identify this failure and prevent a serious deviation.

In many receivers, an updatable database is used for navigation fixes, airports, and instrument procedures. These databases must be maintained to the current update for IFR operation, but no such requirement exists for VFR use. However, in many cases, the database drives a moving map display that indicates Special Use Airspace and the various classes of airspace in addition to other operational information. Without a current database, the moving map display may be outdated and offer erroneous information to VFR pilots wishing to fly around critical airspace areas, such as a Restricted Area or a Class B airspace segment. Numerous pilots have ventured into airspace they were trying to avoid by using an outdated database. If there is not a current database in the receiver, disregard the moving map display when making critical navigation decisions.

In addition, waypoints are added, removed, relocated, or re-named as required to meet operational needs. When using GPS to navigate relative to a named fix, a current database must be used to properly locate a named waypoint. Without the update, it is the pilot’s responsibility to verify the waypoint location referencing to an official current source, such as the Chart Supplement U.S., sectional chart, or en route chart.

In many VFR installations of GPS receivers, antenna location is more a matter of convenience than performance. In IFR installations, care is exercised to ensure that an adequate clear view is provided for the antenna to communicate with satellites. If an alternate location is used, some portion of the aircraft may block the view of the antenna increasing the possibility of losing navigation signal.

This is especially true in the case of hand-held receivers. The use of hand-held receivers for VFR operations is a growing trend, especially among rental pilots. Typically, suction cups are used to place the GPS antennas on the inside of aircraft windows. While this method has great utility, the antenna location is limited by aircraft structure for optimal reception of available satellites. Consequently, signal loss may occur in certain situations where aircraft-satellite geometry causes a loss of navigation signal. These losses, coupled with a lack of RAIM capability, could present erroneous position and navigation information with no warning to the pilot.

While the use of hand-held GPS receivers for VFR operations is not limited by regulation, modification of the aircraft, such as installing a panel- or yoke-mounted holder, is governed by 14 CFR part 43. Pilots should consult a mechanic to ensure compliance with the regulation and a safe installation.

Flight Literacy Recommends

Rod Machado's Private Pilot Handbook -Flight Literacy recommends Rod Machado's products because he takes what is normally dry and tedious and transforms it with his characteristic humor, helping to keep you engaged and to retain the information longer. (see all of Rod Machado's Products).