Radar Principles

In the hands of the skilled operator, radar provides precise updates to dead reckoning (DR) for navigation. At cruising altitudes, it provides information on land and water characteristics, as well as hazardous weather conditions over hundreds of miles around the aircraft. At low-level, it provides detailed terrain information used to navigate at high speed over changing courses. It is adapted to terrain-avoidance and terrain-following equipment. Radar is a source of track and drift angle (DA) information for wind computations.


The basis of the system has been known theoretically since 1888, when Heinrich Hertz successfully demonstrated the transfer of electromagnetic energy in space and showed that such energy is capable of reflection. The transmission of electromagnetic energy between two points was developed as radio, but it was not until 1922 that practical use of the reflection properties of such energy was conceived. The idea of measuring the elapsed time between the transmission of a radio signal and receipt of its reflected echo from a surface originated nearly simultaneously in the United States and England. In the United States, two scientists working with air-to-ground signals noticed that ships moving in the nearby Potomac River distorted the pattern of these signals. In 1925, the same scientists were able to measure the time required for a short burst, or pulse, of radio energy to travel to the ionosphere and return. Following this success, it was realized the radar principle could be applied to the detection of other objects, including ships and aircraft.

By the beginning of World War II, the Army and Navy had developed equipment appropriate to their respective fields. During and following the war, the rapid advance in theory and technological skill brought improvements and additional applications of the early equipment. It is now possible to measure accurately the distance and direction of a reflecting surface in space, whether it is an aircraft, ship, hurricane, or prominent feature of the terrain, even under conditions of darkness or restricted visibility. For these reasons, radar has become a valuable navigational tool.

As noted previously, the fundamental principle of radar may be likened to that of relating sound to its echo. Thus, a ship sometimes determines its distance from a cliff at the water’s edge by blowing its whistle and timing the interval until the echo is received. The same principle applies to radar, which uses the reflected echo of electromagnetic radiation traveling at the speed of light. This speed is approximately 162,000 nautical miles (NM) per second; it may also be expressed as 985 feet per microsecond. If the interval between the transmission of the signal and return of the echo is 200 microseconds, the distance to the target is: