Charting a Course: Going From Here to There

Going From Here to There

If we wanted to fly along aimlessly without following a set route, we’d fly in a balloon instead of an airplane. Understanding what charting a course and being able to follow it is a key skill in navigation. While maps and charts might look complicated, it is pretty straightforward once you’ve got the basics down. I will show you how to plan your flight route and identify some common areas that people struggle with.

Why Do Pilots Chart a Course?

If you were driving on vacation to a new resort, you wouldn’t just pack the car and start driving in the general direction of the resort.

Instead, you would take a good look at the map, determine the best path, select some stopping points for food and fuel, and probably estimate the length of the trip in miles and time. That’s exactly what you’re going to do to plan your first solo cross-country trip.

There is one crucial difference, however.

In the sky, there are no road signs or lines to follow.

Instead, you’ll be identifying your position based on what you can see on the ground and cross-referencing it against what you see on your aeronautical chart.

The beautiful thing about this (and one of the joys of flying) is, you can go wherever you wish. You don’t have roads to follow; you can create your own path. And, for private pilots who don’t fly in congested airspace, you don’t have to worry about traffic jams, either. They’re all below you.

Generally, charting a course gives you a plan. It allows you to answer the following four questions:

  • Where are you going?
  • How will you get there?
  • When will you get there?
  • What about problems (weather, fuel availability, diversion airports, etc.)?

Flight planning is really important!

What Is an Aeronautical Chart?

Aeronautical charts can be considered a ‘road map’ that we use when flight planning and when actually flying around and navigating. They will cover the area in which you live and fly.

Aeronautical charts have lots of information depicted, and most of it is really important. Here are some of the things that you’ll find on an aeronautical chart:

  • Topographical data – A depiction of the terrain and its heights
  • Land-based natural features – This can include things such as lakes, streams, hills, forests, and rivers.
  • Land-based man-made features – These are things such as built-up areas, roads, railway lines, and power lines
  • Visual reference points – These are prominent landmarks that are unmistakable, even from the air.
  • Airports and airfields – your home field won’t be the only one depicted. Eventually, you’ll be taking your pick of where you want to go.
  • Danger zones – This is the name given to localized hazards that may be detrimental to safe flight. Military firing ranges are a great example of an aviation danger zone, and they aren’t always obvious from the air.
  • Restricted areas –  This could be surrounding a sensitive area, such as government buildings or nuclear power stations.
  • Airspace – You’ll no doubt already be aware that there are different classes of airspace. Some are reserved for the big jets, and some are unrestricted. There are different rules regarding the equipment you need and even what weather you are allowed to fly in
  • Navigational Aids – Once you have charted your course, and if your airplane has the right equipment, you can see which navigational aids will enable you to confirm your position more easily.
  • Latitude and Longitudinal lines - these lines allow you to fix your position anywhere on the surface of the globe. They intersect as a grid and run East to West and North to South.

You will be using a combination of all of the above when you are charting your course. As a general rule, a good pilot will use all of the information available to them when planning a route on a map.

If you want to learn more, the FAA has a great PDF guide on using an aeronautical chart.

Aeronautical Charts Overview (Video)

How Will You Get There? Plotting a Charted Course

In essence, a charted course is literally a line on a map that you will fly.

However, it isn’t quite as simple as that.

If you draw a line between any two points and then observe what is underneath it, you will see that it probably intersects a whole manner of features. Many of the things we mentioned above as chart features are things you probably don’t want to fly over.

As you mark your course on the sectional chart, you might see reasons to avoid specific areas. For example, your course might cross a restricted area or other temporary flight activity that could be dangerous. Or you might decide to avoid a mountainous area until you’re more comfortable with flying.

Military firing ranges? Government buildings? Busy airports and airspace?

No, thanks!

As a result, you will need to plot your course to avoid certain features while also taking advantage of others.

And there is more to consider.

If you are flying a considerable distance, you will also need to plan to refuel, so you might very well need to fly into a busy airport!

Charting a Course for the First Time. Some Great Tips

Until you are signed off for unlimited cross-country trips by your instructor, your excursions are limited. Your instructor will help you select a trip to learn new elements of flying without getting frustrated.

You can simply lay out the chart on a flat surface and draw a straight line between where you are and where you want to be. That’s your course.

However, eventually, you’ll be keen to go farther afield and test your navigational skills. Here is some great advice for when you are learning: -

Pick Easily Identifiable Features

Things can look different from the air. As you’ll be navigating visually, be sure to plan your route around waypoints that are really easy to see and identify.

Depending on where you’re flying, these landmarks can be lakes, mountain peaks, major road intersections, railroad train yards, towns, and even water towers (with the town name often written on them).

Be sure to check that there aren’t similar features nearby. It is easy to make a mistake in the air.

Fly Short Legs

Flying shorter legs allows you to keep your navigation accurate. Generally, you want to space your navigational checkpoints around 5 – 10 minutes apart. This is enough time to allow you to concentrate on aircraft handling, but not so long as to go too far if you’ve made an error.

Gross navigational errors tend to get worse over time. By keeping the time short, you’ll pick up errors sooner and get yourself back on the right track.

Read from Ground to Map

There is a human phenomenon called ‘conformation bias’.

In short, this means that people see what they want to see. The map doesn’t dictate where you are. The features around you do. Avoid looking at the map and then trying to match the outside picture with what you see inside.

It should be the other way around.

When flying visually, you assess what is going on outside and then use this information to see where you are on the map.

Consider Backing up with Ground-Based Radio Aids

A smart pilot uses all available tools.

You could consider flying by ground-based radio navigation. You can use VOR (VHF omnidirectional range) radio stations to give you a signal.

Depending on your navigation equipment, you could decide to fly from VOR station to VOR station because many are located near airports. You also may have a primary or backup GPS system to help you navigate.

Any of the above are great to make certain of your position. However, remember that you will be flying visually during your flight test, so make this the primary means of ascertaining your position.

Draw a Wind Line

The air is very rarely static. While the great thing about flying is that you become part of the air, your course will be influenced by the direction it is blowing.

Want to do yourself a favor when plotting a course?

Make life easy and draw a big arrow indicating the direction of the wind on your route. There are several reasons to do this:

  • It increases situational aw areness – You’ll be able to make a good guess at which runways are in use at the airports along your route
  • It allows for a good gross error check – When flying your route, you’ll be using time as a factor to decide when to start looking for your waypoints. An error in applying a head or tailwind can lead to navigational errors.
  • Contingency planning for engine failures – You will always want to land into the wind if something goes wrong. A big arrow on the map makes turni ng in the right direction easy.

Highlight ‘Trouble’ Areas

There is no worse feeling than being asked to ‘call the tower’ after you land.

The best way to avoid restricted zones and busting airspace is to make it really, really obvious on the chart. I normally draw around danger areas in a thick red pen.

Plan For The ‘What If’

While flying out into the wilderness is great fun, you still need to be cautious. Thinking about what happens if something goes wrong is part of being a good pilot.

Ideally, you want to chart your course to be in easy reach of somewhere to land in the event of an emergency. This doesn’t have to be an airport.

Long straight sections of road, open fields, and agricultural land are far preferable to thick forest and built-up residential areas.

Plotting a Route and Using Other Sources of Information

Remember, once a chart is printed, it doesn’t change.


Flying is very much a dynamic pursuit, with no two days the same (which is one of the reasons why we all love it).

To navigate effectively, you will need to use other sources of information to back up what you see on the chart.

You can get additional information about your destination airport and others you’ll pass along the way by referring to the FAA’s Airport/Facility Directory (A/FD) or to one of the VFR (visual flight rules) facility directories.

Listings in these resources include the airport name, location identifier, elevation, location relative to a nearby community, latitude and longitude, telephone numbers, operational information, and other things you should know, such as noise abatement regulations

Each airport listing also offers airport frequencies, including ATIS (automatic terminal information service), the tower frequency, CTAF (common traffic advisory frequency), approach and departure control frequencies (if controlled), AWOS (Automated Weather Observing System), traffic pattern information, and a runway diagram.

The listing also tells you how long the field is, what surface (grass, gravel, paved), and other useful information for identifying and using the field. Most importantly, it also tells you whether fuel is sold there, what kind, and when.

The above source is only one such area you could receive information. When charting a course, it is also vitally important to check the NOTAMS for any localized airspace restrictions.

Wing Tips

Charting a course involves much more than simply drawing a line on the map. If you are doing it right, you’ll be creating a wealth of useful information on the ground to take with you into the air. Be aware of restricted areas, plan for worst-case scenarios and pick easy-to-see references. You’ll be off to a great start. Where are you going to fly to?

 3 VFR Sectional Chart Symbols You Should Know (Video)