Typical Radar Returns (Part One)

Returns from Land

All land surfaces present minute irregular parts of the total surface for reflection of the radar beam; thus, there is usually a certain amount of radar return from all land areas. The amount of return varies considerably according to the nature of the land surface scanned. This variance is caused by the difference in reflecting materials of which the land area is composed and the texture of the land surface. These are the primary factors governing the total radar return from specific land areas.


Flat Land

A certain amount of any surface, however flat in the overall view, is irregular enough to reflect the radar beam. Surfaces that are apparently flat are actually textured and may cause returns on the scope. Ordinary soil absorbs some of the radar energy, the return that emanates from this type of surface is not strong. Irregularly textured land areas present more surface to the radar beam than flat land and cause more return. The returns from irregularly textured land areas are most intense when the radar beam scans the ridges or similar features at a right angle. This effect is particularly helpful in detecting riverbeds, gullies, or other sharp breaks in the surface height. At times, in desolate areas that are flat, these occasional surface changes are apparent where it would not have appeared in more irregular topography. Such returns provide recognizable targets in otherwise sparse circumstances. In other cases, especially at low-level over broken terrain, this effect could complicate scope interpretation.

Hills and Mountains

Hills and mountains normally give more radar returns than flat land, because the radar beam is more nearly perpendicular to the sides of these features. The typical return is a bright return from the near side of the feature and an area of no return on the far side. The area of no return, called a mountain shadow, exists because the radar beam cannot penetrate the mountain and its LOS transmission does not allow it to intercept targets behind the mountain. [Figure 7-6] The shadow area varies in size, depending upon the height of the aircraft with respect to the mountain. As an aircraft approaches a mountain, the shadow area becomes smaller at higher altitudes. Furthermore, the shape of the shadow area and the brightness of the return from the peak varies as the aircraft’s position changes. As the aircraft closes on the mountainous area, shadows may disappear completely as the beam covers the entire surface area. At this point, a great deal of energy is reflected back at the antenna and recognizable features in that area are rare.

Figure 7-6. Mountain shadows.

Figure 7-6. Mountain shadows.

Recognition of mountain shadow is important because any target in the area behind the mountain cannot be seen on the scope. In areas with isolated high peaks or mountain ridges, contour navigation may be possible, because the returns from such features assume an almost three-dimensional appearance. This allows specific peaks to be identified.

In more rugged mountainous areas, however, there may be so many mountains with resulting return and shadow areas that contour navigation is almost impossible. But these mountainous areas are composed of patches of mountains or hills, each having different relative sizes and shapes and relative positions from other patches. By observing these relationships on a chart, general aircraft positioning is feasible.


Coastlines and Riverbanks

The contrast between water and land is very sharp, so that the configuration of coasts and lakes are seen with map-like clarity in most cases. [Figure 7-7] When the radar beam scans the banks of a river, lake, or larger body of water, there is little or no return from the water surface itself, but there is usually a return from the adjoining land. The more rugged the bank or coastline, the more returns are experienced. In cases where there are wide, smooth mud flats or sandy beaches, the exact definition of the coastline requires careful tuning. Since both mountains and lakes present a dark area on the scope, it is sometimes easy to mistake a mountain shadow for a lake. This is particularly true when navigating in mountainous areas that also contain lakes.

Figure 7-7. Radar returns.

Figure 7-7. Radar returns.

One difference between returns from mountain areas and lakes is that returns from mountains are bright on the near side and dark on the far side, while returns from lakes are of more uniform brightness all around the edges. Another characteristic of mountain returns is that the no-show area changes its shape and position quite rapidly as the aircraft moves; returns from lakes change inconsequentially.

Cultural Returns

The overall size and shape of the radar return from any given city can usually be determined with a fair degree of accuracy by referring to a current map of the area. [Figure 7-7] However, the brightness of one cultural area as compared to another may vary greatly, and this variance can hardly be forecasted by reference to the navigation chart. In general, due to the collection of dense materials therein, urban and suburban areas generate strong returns, although the industrial and commercial centers of the cities produce a much greater brightness than the outlying residential areas. Many isolated or small groups of structures create radar returns. The size and brightness of the radar returns these features produce are dependent on their construction. If these structures are not plotted on the navigation charts, they are of no navigational value. However, some of them give very strong returns, such as large concrete dams and steel bridges. If any are plotted on the chart and can be properly identified, they can provide valuable navigational assistance.

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