Ground-Based Navigation (Part Four) – VOR/DME RNAV


Area navigation (RNAV) permits electronic course guidance on any direct route between points established by the pilot. While RNAV is a generic term that applies to a variety of NAVAIDS, such as GPS and others, this section deals with VOR/DME-based RNAV. VOR/DME RNAV is not a separate ground-based NAVAID, but a method of navigation using VOR/DME and VORTAC signals specially processed by the aircraft’s RNAV computer. [Figure 16-35]

Figure 16-35. Flying an RNAV course.

Figure 16-35. Flying an RNAV course.

NOTE: In this section, the term “VORTAC” also includes VOR/DME NAVAIDs.

In its simplest form, VOR/DME RNAV allows the pilot to electronically move VORTACs around to more convenient locations. Once electronically relocated, they are referred to as waypoints. These waypoints are described as a combination of a selected radial and distance within the service volume of the VORTAC to be used. These waypoints allow a straight course to be flown between almost any origin and destination, without regard to the orientation of VORTACs or the existence of airways.


While the capabilities and methods of operation of VOR/ DME RNAV units differ, there are basic principles of operation that are common to all. Pilots are urged to study the manufacturer’s operating guide and receive instruction prior to the use of VOR/DME RNAV or any unfamiliar navigational system. Operational information and limitations should also be sought from placards and the supplement section of the AFM/POH.

VOR/DME-based RNAV units operate in at least three modes: VOR, en route, and approach. A fourth mode, VOR Parallel, may also be found on some models. The units need both VOR and DME signals to operate in any RNAV mode. If the NAVAID selected is a VOR without DME, RNAV mode will not function.

In the VOR (or non-RNAV) mode, the unit simply functions as a VOR receiver with DME capability. [Figure 16-36] The unit’s display on the VOR indicator is conventional in all respects. For operation on established airways or any other ordinary VOR navigation, the VOR mode is used.

Figure 16-36. RNAV controls.

Figure 16-36. RNAV controls.

To utilize the unit’s RNAV capability, the pilot selects and establishes a waypoint or a series of waypoints to define a course. A VORTAC (or VOR/DME) needs to be selected as a NAVAID, since both radial and distance signals are available from these stations. To establish a waypoint, a point somewhere within the service range of a VORTAC is defined on the basis of radial and distance. Once the waypoint is entered into the unit and the RNAV en route mode is selected, the CDI displays course guidance to the waypoint, not the original VORTAC. DME also displays distance to the waypoint. Many units have the capability to store several waypoints, allowing them to be programmed prior to flight, if desired, and called up in flight.

RNAV waypoints are entered into the unit in magnetic bearings (radials) of degrees and tenths (i.e., 275.5°) and distances in NM and tenths (i.e., 25.2 NM). When plotting RNAV waypoints on an aeronautical chart, pilots find it difficult to measure to that level of accuracy, and in practical application, it is rarely necessary. A number of flight planning publications publish airport coordinates and waypoints with this precision and the unit accepts those figures. There is a subtle but important difference in CDI operation and display in the RNAV modes.


In the RNAV modes, course deviation is displayed in terms of linear deviation. In the RNAV en route mode, maximum deflection of the CDI typically represents 5 NM on either side of the selected course without regard to distance from the waypoint. In the RNAV approach mode, maximum deflection of the CDI typically represents 1¼ NM on either side of the selected course. There is no increase in CDI sensitivity as the aircraft approaches a waypoint in RNAV mode.

The RNAV approach mode is used for instrument approaches. Its narrow scale width (¼ of the en route mode) permits very precise tracking to or from the selected waypoint. In VFR cross-country navigation, tracking a course in the approach mode is not desirable because it requires a great deal of attention and soon becomes tedious.

A fourth, lesser-used mode on some units is the VOR Parallel mode. This permits the CDI to display linear (not angular) deviation as the aircraft tracks to and from VORTACs. It derives its name from permitting the pilot to offset (or parallel) a selected course or airway at a fixed distance of the pilot’s choosing, if desired. The VOR parallel mode has the same effect as placing a waypoint directly over an existing VORTAC. Some pilots select the VOR parallel mode when utilizing the navigation (NAV) tracking function of their autopilot for smoother course following near the VORTAC.

Navigating an aircraft with VOR/DME-based RNAV can be confusing, and it is essential that the pilot become familiar with the equipment installed. It is not unknown for pilots to operate inadvertently in one of the RNAV modes when the operation was not intended, by overlooking switch positions or annunciators. The reverse has also occurred with a pilot neglecting to place the unit into one of the RNAV modes by overlooking switch positions or annunciators. As always, the prudent pilot is not only familiar with the equipment used, but never places complete reliance in just one method of navigation when others are available for cross-check.

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