Radio Navigation

The basic model for flight schools is to get students to take their CFII right after their CFI. This makes sense for the school for a few reasons, but in the long run, it ends up costing students. The school’s reasoning is that a CFII is a more marketable job candidate than a CFI, and that CFIIs are more likely to get hired. When schools do hire from the outside, they also subscribe to this rationale. Personally, I’d rather spend my CFII training where I’d be teaching, and it wouldn’t hurt to have that actual flight time to familiarize a new instructor with the school’s SOPs and the environment, but that’s the way the industry works. As a prospective instructor, you’ll have to buy into this logic and finish your CFII before you start looking for work.

Here’s the downside that I see: R22 instrument trainers are in short supply and have a more restrictive CG envelope (from what I hear anyway–I’ve only seen 1, and it was a glass cockpit trainer). Because of this, many schools rely on the R44 for instrument and CFII training. No problem there. But, insurance companies aren’t thrilled about low-time CFIIs instructing in R44s, and at least some of them will stick a 500 hr TT restriction on their policies. There are, of course, exceptions and ways schools can get around this, but if your school uses an R44, find out.

Why does this matter? A CFII operating in this system will fly for several months before he’s at 500 hrs TT and cleared to teach in the R44. All that time, he won’t have given a moment’s thought to instrument flight or procedures, and the teaching methods he learned to pass his CFII check ride will be fuzzy memories. Depending on your school, he may not be IFR current, and his R44 time in the last 60 days may only be 1-2 hrs. Even if you land a CFII that’s close to his 1000 hrs and has been teaching IFR for a while, at best, he’s probably only taken 3-5 students through their instrument rating–not much practice, considering the amount of knowledge that has to be learned during the instrument rating. So, if your school was anything like the school I went to, any instructor you get will be struggling to remember how to fly IFR and to develop effective teaching methods. As his student, you’ll be paying for your instructor to get up to speed.

The best thing for students would be for schools to offer CFII training only once their instructors have the aeronautical experience they need to perform the duties of a CFII. This won’t happen, since there’s an economic incentive for schools to take every student as far along in their training as they can before the student runs out of money or leaves to teach somewhere else. As a student, you can reduce the cost and time you need for your instrument rating by learning as much as you can at home. Obviously you can do more ground training at home. I’d recommend ditching the Jeppesen Instrument/Commercial textbook altogether, and using the FAA Instrument Procedures Handbook as a back-up source. For books, I personally liked Instrument Flying by Richard Taylor. I picked up the 4th edition for less than it cost the seller to ship it to me. A book like this is pretty worthless for learning regs, and I think he still had a  section on the recently decommissioned LORAN network. But he provides a common sense, practical approach to learning instrument procedures based on the experience that your instructor just doesn’t have. I’m not saying you should run out and by that book, but look into some of the video programs and books that are out there. Go over to your local fixed wing flight school, talk to one of their 2000-hr part-time instructors, and ask him what his recommendations are (when I finally did this, the FW instructor slapped his forehead when I told him all I was using was the FAA books).

You can also sit on your couch and learn the skills you’d be paying almost $500/hr for in the cockpit. That was the spirit behind this lesson on how to use Tim’s VOR Simulator, but I know that others before me have done a better job explaining radio navigation, so I didn’t want to duplicate effort there. And here’s one of those others, doing a lecture on VOR Basics. This is a very clear and organized lesson from a well-spoken and well-prepared instructor–I didn’t hear an Ummm… or Uhhhh… in the whole lesson, which gives you an idea of how much forethought went into his presentation.


Tim's VOR Simulator

It’s pretty much the Pong of flight simulators, but this little tool can seriously save you on ground school and flight training. I’ve seen friends struggle with VOR navigation, especially when studying for the PPL and CPL written exams, since most of the helicopters we fly aren’t equipped with an VOR or HSI. Worse, an ADF in a helicopter is as common as an AM radio in a new car, and I’ve never seen an RMI outside of a textbook. Yet these are worth more than a few points on every written you’ll take.

Even in instrument trainers, these traditional navigation systems–even if they’re in there–often get passed over for the ubiquitous GPS. It’s just as well. Everything you need to know about navigating by VOR/HSI/ADF/RMI can be done efficiently and cheaply at your computer. You can forgo thousands of dollars trying to do the mental work that interpreting these instruments requires while continuing to fly an aircraft in the real-world (with turbulence, imperfect/absent lesson plans, ATC and radio chatter, etc.). You just have to have the right tools.

When you start your instrument training, you’ll be tempted by Microsoft Flight Simulator. For the cost of 15 minutes in the school’s R44 instrument trainer or a half hour in their Frasca, you can get MSFS X and a joystick. Then it won’t run smoothly on your computer, and you won’t be able to fly the Jet Ranger (but you’ll spend a few hours trying). Then you start thinking about a better machine and rudder pedals, get bored and frustrated, then take a few turns in the Extra 300. 3 hours later you’ve accomplished nothing. Save yourself. MSFS has it’s place for practicing instrument skills, but not in the Jet Ranger, and not from pick-up to set-down, but that’ll be the topic of another post.

Tim’s VOR Simulator, in contrast, is free, runs pretty well, is easy to find online, and you just have to know a few keyboard commands to fly it. It has all the functionality you need to practice simple problems (where am I relative to the VOR?), and can help you isolate the skills you’ll need to fly complex holds and approaches. Best of all, it’s free to anybody with a computer and internet connection, saving expensive cockpit time for consolidating the motor skills that can’t be replicated well even in the best simulators. Tim’s VOR Simulator allows you to set your speed and heading/turn rate with simple keyboard commands. Master that and the program’s quirks, and you can sit at your desk, at school, or in a coffee shop and focus on the mental part of instrument flying (and instrument flying is all mental). Make a mistake, and you can stop the simulation immediately and start over. Altitude isn’t a variable (which further improves the value of this tool for isolating specific skills), but wind can be introduced to teach wind angle corrections.

When you can fly this procedure with Tim's VOR Simulator, young Grasshopper, then you will be ready to fly by instruments.

Most people don’t know about this option though. My instructors didn’t (and they weren’t interested when I showed them). And every few months somebody will get on the forums asking about the best simulator for learning instrument procedures. So I’ve added a Tim’s VOR Simulator Lesson. It’s not a VOR navigation lesson, but just a lesson on how to use Tim’s VOR simulator to learn radio navigation. It’s also not an instrument lesson. This lesson is intended for student pilots working through their ground school and studying for their FAA written tests. The problems are remedial, but if you don’t understand radio navigation, you’ll struggle with them. I’ve also put some simple videos on YouTube that demonstrates these problems (sorry, no audio for them…I’ve had  a sore throat for the last couple of days).

Once you know how to work the simulator, you’ll see how you can easily use it to learn instrument skills (when you’re ready). But in the beginning, its simple interface can actually be a pain in the ass if you aren’t committed to trying it out. This lesson plan demonstrates some simple exercises you can do with the simulator that will open this tool up to you. Once you get past how to set up problems, the biggest barrier to continuing to use it is boredom. But that’s actually what you’re trying to accomplish. When navigating by VOR is as mundane as following a highway, or you can fly some wacky procedure while drinking a beer at 01:30 while seeing what the JustHelicopter trolls are up to in another window, then you won’t be making expensive mistakes in the air.

Really, ADF/RMI navigation, approaches, and holds are so much easier when you can see the instruments react in real-time and test your understanding. While drinking beer. I’ll do more of those video lessons or design some more structured problems, but it’d help if I got some feedback about what types of problems students are having trouble with.