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Understand how to use VOR and ADF Nav aids to orient yourself anytime

VOR cessna 172 flytime

Nav aids like the VOR and ADF are there for you to use anytime you should need them. Having a solid understanding of these navigational (nav) aids is important and goes beyond training offered to us as private pilots, but is available for us to learn to become proficient aviators, particularly if we are regularly flying long distances, with passengers, at night, or any combination of those.

Basic nav instruments can be valuable

In a typical aircraft used for flight training, usually a Cessna 172, we’ll often have a VOR, ADF and GPS.  When we’re training for our private license, we typically aren’t introduced to these tools, but we do learn about them briefly in ground school. In commercial training, we learn about all of these in more detail and must become proficient at them, as we’re expected to demonstrate their use on a flight test. But it should go beyond that. Even if you’re not training for a commercial license, you should be familiar with these nav aids and how to use them. In case the weather should deteriorate, particularly at night, you’ll be much safer.

These basic instruments can help you create a situational ‘mental map’ of your location, a mental map that will become invaluable should you get lost or encounter adverse weather and are forced to divert. 

Preparing for a worst case scenario

Having the simple, yet valuable information provided by these basic instruments becomes extremely important in case the worst should happen. What if you take off with a shaky forecast, and fly into some weather? We’ve all been told that if we head into clouds or low visibility we should note our heading and begin a 180 degree turn into the reciprocal heading.  But how about if we just loose visibility, flying into an area of low cloud or haze? We need somewhere to go, so how do we find it? We have to find a suitable place to divert to, and knowing where your ADF and VOR stations are on the map can help us get there. 

A flight instructor gave me instructions for a simulator session to use as training in these instruments. The exercise has many practical applications for flying in both day and night, as it helps orient you in reference to a station and an airport, to help get you land when you need to terminate your flight due to deteriorating weather. It’s better to try to land at an airport than planning a landing in a field


The VOR transmits 360 single radials from a specific station. When you select a specific radial on your VOR instrument, you’ll be able to see which side of the VOR station you are depending if you see a “TO” or “FROM” flag.  For example, say you are lost somewhere in the vicinity of Springbank airport in Alberta, and you want to return to there and land. You’re not sure which way you should head to get back to your airport. Knowing the frequency for the Springbank VOR, you tune it and immediately you’ll be able to get information of which side of the station you are on and how you should track to get back there. 

Where am I?

Here is an example.

Once you tune your VOR to a station, select radial 150.

If it says TO, that means you’re on the other side of that radial. If it says FROM, you are on that side of the radial. 


Your automatic direction finder, or ADF is a basic instrument that transmits location information on the AM band. To use, tune it to a non-directional beacon (or NDB). The arrow on the ADF will always point to the station. 

ADF flytime alicja gados
The ADF on a Cessna 172. The ADF always points to the station.

These stations will eventually be shut down in Canada, and Transport Canada has been planning to decommission the stations for years. This planned decommissioning is not happening quickly. They still remain, and will likely be around for years to come, and while they do, are a basic, though valuable navigational tool that you can use to orient yourself. 

Where am I?

To use, once you tune the ADF to the specific NDB frequency, listen for the morse code. That is how you know you have the right NDB. Now, note where the arrow points. 

The arrow always points to the station. To head directly to the station, align the nose of the airplane at the top of the instrument (0 degrees). To depart with the station directly behind you, align the arrow to point directly behind the airplane. 

A real life example

You depart Calgary/Springbank on a VFR flight with paying passengers heading north to Rocky Mountain House. The GFA shows a cold front moving through the area from the northwest with deteriorating ceilings and visibility over the next six hours.

On your way out to climb runway heading of 350 to 5500′, you intercept and track outbound of the Turner Valley NDB (299) and continue the climb to 6500′. 

From Calgary International, you can track the V306 airway (116.7) to track outbound (away from) Calgary towards your destination. On your way along the track, you can tune to the Sundre NDB and to track your progress also and report when you’re abeam the station (when you are passing the station on your left hand side). 

So, you know where you are and continue en route.

The ceiling drops. Now you have to descend to stay VFR. You descend to 4500′, taking note that there are towers in the area that are close to that altitude. Tune the Red Deer NDB (320), and use it to keep track of when you pass the James River, not abandoning the flight quite yet.

The weather gets worse  – it now becomes unsafe to continue, and no longer VFR.  Now you abandon your original course and aim for the closest airport – that is Red Deer. You’ve already got the NDB tuned to Red Deer, so you just turn and track direct to there, climbing back up to 5500′.

Enroute to Red Deer, you experience a vacuum failure. This means you’ve lost your heading indicator and attitude indicator, and you’re now flying partial panel, using your turn and bank coordinator as the best indicator of your attitude, cross referencing the airspeed and VSI to confirm. 

You’ll cross the Red Deer NDB at your altitude of 5500′ and begin a descending, rate one, right turn to get to runway heading of 345 (the runway you’re aiming for will be runway 35). This is a timed turn, so you’ll have to note your heading going into the turn and make sure your turn is consistently rate one throughout. Or else you may over or undershoot your runway, and you don’t want to spend any more time flying around in precarious weather with limited instruments. 

Once you land safely, there is great reason to celebrate. You have just used your skill to get your passengers, yourself, and your airplane down on the ground safely.

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Transport Canada modifies Flight Tests to assess stabilized approaches

cessna 172 on departure

The General Aviation Safety Campaign (GASC) was established in June 2017 and since has endeavoured to identify the most common contributory factors in aviation accidents. The GASC created working groups to look to key areas and phases of flight that were particularly hazardous. The GASC divided into nine working groups addressing various areas of interest.

The result of these working groups identified that major contributors of fatal aviation accidents are caused by in-flight loss of control. The more interesting thing is these accidents usually occur during a few critical phases of flight: you guessed it – when you’re at a lower altitude and don’t have enough time to recover.

Some of the specifics of their findings can be found on Transport’s website here

Most loss of control (LOC) accidents ocour during the arrival phase of flight, the base to final turn and on final. Over 20 years of similar research in the U.S. has aligned with these findings. Stalling the aircraft near the ground is very dangerous. One particular area of interest was the topic of stabilized approaches. Transport Canada listened, and has now incorporated the testing of stabilized approaches for the RPL, PPL, CPL and multi-engine flight tests.

transport canada
Transport Canada logo. Image from

The new flight test guidelines will be incorporated into the Flight Test Guides on March 1, 2019. They’ll be available on the Transport Canada website then for download. IFR tests already have this criteria in place, but it will be new for all other flight tests. 

The testing involves ensuring the pilot understands what constitutes a stabilized approach. We’ve always been instructed on what makes a stabilized approach during training, the only difference now is it will be a formally and officially tested skill. So what does it mean to have a stabilized approach? Our instructors have always maintained that a good approach results in a good landing. It’s all part of safety and to make our passengers more comfortable.

One thing that comes to mind is to state at a specific point in the approach is checking in on a specific point in the approach, say 200 AGL, whether your approach is :stable.”  Have you reached your target airspeed and are you flying the attitude? Have you chosen your final flap setting, if applicable? Do you have your wind inputs in, if you face a crosswind? Is the runway clear? If you’re not stabilized according to the criteria set out in the guide, you’ll be expected to initiate an overshoot.

Things we’ve always done, but now will be officially tested on. 

Look for your next handy flight test guide from Transport Canada here





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737 aborts midlanding in extreme wind

enter air boeing 737 salzberg austria

Tense moments leading up to a tricky approach and landing at Salzberg airport in Austria on October 29.

The Polish Enter Air Boeing 737, arriving from Frankfurt, is on approach very gusty winds and highly technical crosswind conditions and unable to make a smooth touchdown following a storm. The storm, called Storm Herwart, had just passed through the area and caused severe weather in Germany and Poland this week.  

The 737 makes a highly technical approach through what look like severe gusty crosswinds, putting the plane in a crab at first, and straightening it out on short final. The crew of this Polish airline was attempting to land on 9000 foot long runway 33, with with winds reported at 270 at 26 gusting 46. The crosswind component was at 60 degrees. After a circling approach, a wind gust nearly drove the wing into the ground. 

The plane bounced off the runway as a strong gust caused the right wing to drop, and looks like at this moment, the pilots decide to overshoot, and initiate take off right away.

Another attempt at landing was not made, and the Boeing headed back to Frankfurt. This looks like the airplane narrowly averted disaster. Two airplanes behind the Boeing decided to go around after receiving the wind shear alert on short final. 


This must have been a scary and intense experience especially for the passengers. Amazingly, the approach was filmed by one of the passenger, which makes for some really interesting footage. It’s interesting to see it from this perspective as well. You can really get a sense of how hard the touchdown was, and the imminent overshoot. The video was shot by passenger Manfred Ortel.

The Boeing returned to Salzberg in about an hour and landed without incident. 

Read more about crosswind landings here and see more videos about difficult crosswind landings


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How does Centre of Gravity affect your airplanes performance?

When you complete your weight and balance form every time before you fly, you need to make sure it fits into your weight and balance envelope. We’re all used to doing it, so it’s second nature by the time we’re licensed, flying for fun, or continuing our training. We’ve all been through this in ground school, but it’s important to refresh the knowledge and remember how exactly airplane performance and handling are affected as to where your airplane’s centre of gravity lies. 

Forward vs. Aft Centre of Gravity

Your airplane is designed with a certain centre of gravity and a small allowance within which it is acceptable to move it. By moving the C of G location, you are changing the amount of downward tail force and lift of your airplane. When lift is created, so is drag, and this causes a decrease in performance.  The airplane needs to be within the envelope to properly handle and retain tested stall characteristics.

What is balance?

Balancing an airplane is a lot like balancing a teeter-totter. For the aircraft to be properly balanced, the sum of all the moments to the left and right of the pivot point (or fulcrum) must be equal.  The fulcrum of the airplane is located at the centre of pressure – or Centre of Lift on the wing. 

weight and balance
The centre of lift and fulcum of your airplane, showing C of G limits. Image from

The load on the left is the total weight of the aircraft located at the C of G which is balanced on the right by the elevators. So what if the C of G changes? The elevator force must also change. So must it change if the centre of lift (centre of pressure) changes.

Every aircraft has a certain maximum forward and rearward C of G limit. This is inherent in the airplanes initial design. 

Aircraft moment causes your nose to pitch down, the tail down force causes moment in the opposite direction, balancing the airplane. The tail is essentially an upside down wing that generates downward lift. The amount of lift needed depends on two factors, the location of C of G, and the weight of the airplane. 

Effects of tail heavy CG

When the C of G is rearward, elevators must produce less downward force to maintain level flight, so the aircraft will fly more nose low.  

The effects of this are poor longitudinal stability, reduced capacity to recover from stalls and spins,  and creates a situation where very light control forces and make it easier for the pilot to over stress the aircraft with smaller deflections. It also causes an increase in cruise speed. 

These effects stem from less tail pressure on the stabilizer. Stall recovery will be difficult, and in some cases impossible, because of less tail pressure. Have you ever noticed that you’re not allowed to have passengers is some small airplanes when practicing stalls and spins? The extra rearward C of G causes the airplane to be out of the utility category, which is required for stall and spin practice. The Cessna 172’s we train on are like that. A rearward C of G changes the flight characteristics enough to make upset recovery difficult.

Effects of nose heavy CG

When the C of G forward, this causes the airplane to nose down, and a higher angle of attack will be required to balance out the forces. The elevator, which is in the aft end provides a counter balancing force to the nose down attitude. 

The airplane will need nose up trim, will be more stable and will cruise slower.  This is because there is more pressure and drag from the stabilizer. 


Since we’re talking about how to put weight in the airplane, take note to why overloading an airplane is not recommended under any circumstance.  An airplane that is overloaded is dangerous. A decrease in performance will be one problem you will see, especially initially, but also you’ll have to deal with:

  • higher speed needed for take off
  • longer distance required for take off
  • reduced rate of climb
  • decreased range of flight
  • lower cruising speed
  • reduced maneuverability of aircraft
  • higher stalling speed
  • higher approach and landing speed will be required
  • and a longer landing roll and stopping distance.

You may have seen dramatization in movies of what airplanes can do, often with great exaggeration.  If you’ve seen American Made, starring Tom Cruise, you’ll note the scene where the pilot is coerced to take off from a high altitude, hot, humid dirt strip in the jungle, oh and did I mention it’s also a short field “runway” with high jungle on both sides, and the airplane is overloaded? If you study aviation, you’ll know that this is a bit of a ridiculous scenario, and when the pilot (Cruise) barely makes it over the trees, clipping the tops of the large trees, he averted disaster, but the scene is incredibly exaggerated and completely unrealistic.  High altitude with obstacles (such as trees or mountains) makes take off very dangerous.

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High Speed Slalom Flying Through Wind Farm

High speed slalom flying through wind farm

Aerobatic pilot Hannes Arch flies an impressive obstacle course through a wind farm in Austria. Red Bull Air Race pilot flew this course in Tauern wind park in Oberzeiring, Austria.

This stunt is more dangerous than most Red Bull obstacle courses for many reasons. First of all, the pylons at the Red Bull courses are inflatable, so the airplane can hit them without suffering damage. However, clipping one of these turbine blades would have devastating consequences. These windmills are also taller than the Red Bull pylons, standing at 60 meters tall (230 feet). An additional challenge was that the terrain the windmills were built on is not even and situated on a ridge that is far from perfectly flat.

He was flying this course exceptionally fast, at 152 knots (280 km/h) and pulling 5.5 G’s in the turn.

The video shows adrenaline-rich flying footage.

The airplane is an Edge 540 V3. Read about Hannes Arch here.

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Watch the Giant Antonov An-225 Mriya land

Antonov An- 225 Mriya at the Farnborough air show in 1990. Image from Wikipedia.

The An-225 is a strategic cargo airlift aircraft powered by six turbofan engines.  It’s the longest and heaviest aircraft ever built, and first flew in 1988. There is only one of these airplanes in the world, only one was ever built. It holds the world record for single item airlifted payload at 189,980 kilograms (418,834 pounds). This made an airlifted total payload of 253,820 kilograms (545,000 pounds). In fact, it’s maximum takeoff weight is 640,000 kilograms – that’s almost 1.5 million pounds.

The name, Mriya, means “dream” in Ukranian.

Watch this aircraft land at Doncaster airport.

What is more impressive, the aircraft landing or taking off? On take off, this enormous aircraft’s six engines are screaming at full power, making some impressive noise, and showing what it takes to get this heavy airplane off the ground.

Now watch it take off from runway 16 at ZRH, Zurich, Switzerland in 2013.