IFR Fix: Navigating a legacy

September 17, 2012

There used to be a high-time flight instructor around here, a real old-school character, sharp as a tack landing a taildragger on the grass in a crosswind, but out of his element navigating and flying in the system.

So a lot of ears perked up when he radioed approach one morning to report that he was “five miles east of the VOR, tracking inbound.”

Had Captain Rustic gone techno?

Nothing of the kind.

Those cone-in-a-circle VOR installations made fine visual checkpoints, he explained at a later time. ATC had instructed him “to proceed to the VOR,” and that's just what he did. Heck, from five miles away the thing stuck out like a sore thumb.

Do you expect to be flying IFR in the year 2020? You may be using some of your local VORs that way too.

For many of today's pilots who entered the instrument environment training in aircraft equipped with two nav/coms, marker beacons, and maybe an ADF, the satellite-based future air traffic system—NextGen—remains an elusive idea, notwithstanding its overall 2020 target date.

But for every NextGen, there is a LastGen. Right now is the time to avoid getting left behind.

It's hard to miss the changing scenery as the current system devolves into what's being called a “legacy” system (a definition of legacy is “anything handed down from the past”). GPS approaches have sprung up at once-VFR-only airports under the Wide Area Augmentation System. As of last July, there were 12,131 GPS-based instrument approaches, compared to 6,628 ground-based approaches, according to recent congressional testimony. (To see when a procedure became available, look on the plate for the procedure amendment number and effective date such as “ORIG 25AUG11.”)

ADS-B (automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast) equipment will be required in your IFR stack by 2020 for flight in airspace where a Mode C transponder gains access now. No, the boxes will not be handed out for free.

Meanwhile, the process of discontinuing or decommissioning legacy navaids will continue, with the FAA focused on a target 50-percent reduction in the VOR network (with yet-unselected navaids continuing in operation to back up NextGen's satellites)

The good news: Those discontinued VORs will still make good visual checkpoints—at least, for a while.