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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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Top Ten Gifts for Pilots

What do pilots like?  Well aside from the obvious, airplanes, there are numerous things that you can buy for your favourite pilot friend or family member or simply any aviation enthusiast.

Coming up with holiday gifts can be tough but for gadget loving aviators, there are lots of options from small to luxurious. Most aviators love everything airplanes!

1. Aviator sunglasses

rayban aviator sunglasses
Ray Ban RB 3025 Aviator Sunglasses

With the sun shining in the eyes, protective eyewear in the cockpit is a necessity. Even in wintertime and on overcast days, it is so bright outside that you simply cannot do without sunglasses.  Aviators are important because they have thin arm bands that fit under the ear cups of the headset.  The arms of standard sunglasses are not compatible with the other cockpit necessity – the headset. Most arms are thick and push out the seals on the ear cups and are uncomfortable.

I have recently come across “Flying Eyes” brand eyewear, and I think they would be a great idea. These glasses have an adjustable cord instead of arms, that fits around your head and won’t obstruct your headset. The glasses also come with fixed plastic arms that you can use outside of the cockpit.

Other nice aviators are made by brands such as Ray-Ban and Oakley.  There is lots of choice out there.  Many are compatible with prescriptive lenses.

2.  Flight Paraphernalia

Do they have a sense of humour? Pilot paraphernalia is always a fun gift.
Do they have a sense of humour? Pilot paraphernalia is always a fun gift.

If you’re dealing with a pilot geek, things like keychains and ornaments are nice to give. You can buy all sorts of things here.

From t-shirts, to mugs, to wall and desk clocks to doormats, coasters, stickers to jewellery, there is a lot of choice.  There are hats, weathervanes, ties and license plate frames. I’ve even seen a runway mat beach towel. Seriously. If you think of something, likely it’s available with a humorous aviation twist.

The classic “Remove before Flight” keychain or t-shirt is always a great idea. I’ve got one, and a lot of my pilot friends do too.


3. Movies and shows about flying

Many pilots love any aviation-themed movie – think of the cult classic Top Gun.  Most of my pilot friends have a copy. Other favourites include Flight, Disney’s Planes, Ice Pilots, Arctic Air or the Aviators TV Show. The show MayDay is one of my favourites however only the older shows are available on DVD.



4.  Flight Bag

Jeppesen captain flight bag. Image from Pilot
Jeppesen captain flight bag. Image from Pilot

There are numerous choices here.  I have a pink flight bag from Powder Puff Pilot that I regularly use, but there are lots of nice ones (and not so nice ones) out there!  The pink bag is definitely a great gift for the female pilot.

When you are selecting a bag, basically you need a bag big enough to fit a headset, notebooks, an iPad, charts, maps, books, a water bottle and snacks. The bag should have an outside pocket for small items such as pens and a few outside pockets on the side, and an interior big enough to house the main items.

If you want to spoil your pilot, check out the Classic Flight Bag, made of hand-cut leather, it’s rugged, durable and very stylish.  The bag is just under $500 and features one large back pocket, two smaller pockets on the side,  and a detachable and adjustable shoulder strap.  Very nice quality.

5. Headset

Flying with my pink ANR headset from Powder Puff Pilot.
Flying with my pink ANR headset from Powder Puff Pilot.

Every pilot needs their own headset.  Again, I’ve got a pink headset from the same company (Powder Puff Pilot) which I like. There are lots of options available here, starting from lower end (under $150) to high end ($1000 and up). Consider how much your pilot flies and whether or not they are considering a career in aviation.   If they are a more casual pilot, a less expensive but still good quality headset would serve them well.

Again, if you want to spoil them the most high-end styles are the Bose and Lightspeed Zulu.  I’ve also read that Sennheiser makes very nice headsets and they are quite a bit less expensive than the Bose and Lightspeed. For example the Sennheiser S1 Passive headset is priced under $400.  The David Clark brand also has lots of options.

Higher end headsets will have better noise attenuation (they will be quieter) and have a better fit.  Lower end headsets often rely on thick ear cup padding to provide most of the noise buffering and some of them can be quite tight on the head and heavy, which is not great for long flights or regular, daily use.

6.  Foreflight subscription

The ForeFlight Software for iPhone
The ForeFlight Software for iPhone

Foreflight is one of the most popular flight-planning software out there, and it’s sold on a subscription basis. If your pilot has a iPad or other tablet, or an iPhone, they will appreciate the simplicity of this app.   In this app you have your maps (VNC and VTA), IFR enroute charts, instrument procedures, and documents (iPad only).  You also get full screen weather maps, airport data, plates, SIGMETS, AIRMETS, NOTAMS, real time map imaging with either IFR or VFR maps. There is less to carry around when you have this app!

The app is sold on a subscription basis, and a standard subscription for the U.S. costs $74.99 and a professional $149.99. The app now has updates for Canada, and a Canadian subscription will cost $149.99 for the year.




7. Kneeboard

Those most pilots will have a regular kneeboard, many pilots now use an iPad or other tablet for flight planning, maps and calculations and not paper.  An iPad kneeboard is a must have in this case, it keeps your iPad conveniently on your leg so it doesn’t slide around, and a comfortable elastic strap goes around your knee without the bulk.

A kneeboard makes a great gift. It was one of my first gifts I received when I started doing my pilots license.

8. Electronic Flight Computer

Flight Computer from Sporty's pilot shop
Flight Computer from Sporty’s pilot shop

Most student pilots use the E6B, a manual flight computer that does unit conversion, fuel burn calculations and calculates wind correction angle, density altitude, among many other things.

Consider getting them either a nice metal E6B, while it’s also a manual computer it’s made of metal and is a lot more robust than the paper one that comes with most ground school kits.  Nicer calculators like an electronic E6B are a great gift and priced around $60.  They do all the same calculations and more convenient and quick.



9.  Flight Review or training DVD’s

Almost everyone who flies, no matter if they are working on their license or already a working pilot, can appreciate a bit of a skill brush up.  Many manoeuvres are seldom practiced past flight school. For example, stalls, precautionary and forced landings or things such as steep turns which don’t have much use in ordinary flight.  But they are important and those skills need to be retained and reinforced.   A review DVD or book can give an entertaining take on the basics to keep their skills sharp.

You can even buy whole courses such as the instrument training course, and more. So if they are considering doing more training you can buy them an online course so they will have a head start.

10. Refresher course with an instructor

Not into books or DVD’s?  Another idea is to buy your pilot a refresher session with an instructor at your local flight school instead of an instructional DVD or book. Often times many pilots want to do this but never find the time, so they will appreciate this.  Flight instructors are always teaching and they know this stuff that most of us forget inside and out.  An hour with an instructor typically costs $60 or so and with aircraft rental it will be around $180, depending on the school.

For the aviation enthusiast? Consider getting them started in flying with a familiarization (fam) flight at your local flight school. A fam flight is a deeply discounted first flight lesson which introduces them to flying and counts towards their training. I surprised someone with a fam flight for a gift once – and the look on their face the first time they flew a plane themselves was so worth it!

Happy gift giving!