Area navigation (RNAV) permits electronic course guidance on any direct route between points established by the pilot. While RNAV is a generic term that applies to a variety of navigational aids, such as LORAN-C, GPS, and others, this section will deal with VOR/DME-based RNAV. VOR/DME RNAV is not a separate ground-based NAVAID, but a method of navigation using VOR/DME and VORTAC signals specially processed by the airplane's RNAV computer.
In its simplest form, VOR/DME RNAV allows the pilot to electronically move VORTACs around to more convenient locations. Once electronically relocated, they are referred to as waypoints. These waypoints are described as a combination of a selected radial and distance within the service volume of the VORTAC to be used. These waypoints allow a straight course to be flown between almost any origin and destination, without regard to the orientation of VORTACs or the existence of airways.
While the capabilities and methods of operation of VOR/DME RNAV units differ, there are basic principals of operation that are common to all. Pilots are urged to study the manufacturer's operating guide and receive instruction prior to the use of VOR/DME RNAV or any unfamiliar navigational system. Operational information and limitations should also be sought from placards and the supplement section of the Airplane Flight Manual and/or Pilot's Operating Handbook (AFM/POH).
VOR/DME-based RNAV units operate in at least three modes: VOR, En Route, and Approach. A fourth mode, VOR Parallel, may also be found on some models. The units need both VOR and DME signals to operate in any RNAV mode. If the NAVAID selected is a VOR without DME, RNAV mode will not function.
In the VOR (or non-RNAV) mode, the unit simply functions as a VOR receiver with DME capability. The unit's display on the VOR indicator is conventional in all respects. For operation on established airways or any other ordinary VOR navigation, the VOR mode is used.
To utilize the unit's RNAV capability, the pilot selects and establishes a waypoint or a series of waypoints to define a course. To operate in any RNAV mode, the unit needs both radial and distance signals; therefore, a VORTAC (or VOR/DME) needs to be selected as a NAVAID. To establish a waypoint, a point somewhere within the service range of a VORTAC is defined on the basis of radial and distance. Once the waypoint is entered into the unit and the RNAV En Route mode is selected, the CDI will display course guidance to the waypoint, not the original VORTAC. DME will also display distance to the waypoint. Many units have the capability to store several waypoints, allowing them to be programmed prior to flight, if desired, and called up in flight.
RNAV waypoints are entered into the unit in magnetic bearings (radials) of degrees and tenths (i.e., 275.5°) and distances in nautical miles and tenths (i.e., 25.2 NM). When plotting RNAV waypoints on an aeronautical chart, pilots will find it difficult to measure to that level of accuracy, and in practical application, it is rarely necessary. A number of flight planning publications publish airport coordinates and waypoints with this precision and the unit will accept those figures. There is a subtle, but important difference in CDI operation and display in the RNAV modes.
In the RNAV modes, course deviation is displayed in terms of linear deviation. In the RNAV En Route mode, maximum deflection of the CDI typically represents 5 NM on either side of the selected course, without regard to distance from the waypoint. In the RNAV Approach mode, maximum deflection of the CDI typically represents 1 1/4 NM on either side of the selected course. There is no increase in CDI sensitivity as the airplane approaches a waypoint in RNAV mode.
The RNAV Approach mode is used for instrument approaches. Its narrow scale width (one-quarter of the En Route mode) permits very precise tracking to or from the selected waypoint. In visual flight rules (VFR) cross-country navigation, tracking a course in the Approach mode is not desirable because it requires a great deal of attention and soon becomes tedious. A fourth, lesser-used mode on some units is the VOR Parallel mode. This permits the CDI to display linear (not angular) deviation as the airplane tracks to and from VORTACs. It derives its name from permitting the pilot to offset (or parallel) a selected course or airway at a fixed distance of the pilot's choosing, if desired. The VOR Parallel mode has the same effect as placing a waypoint directly over an existing VORTAC. Some pilots select the VOR Parallel mode when utilizing the navigation (NAV) tracking function of their autopilot for smoother course following near the VORTAC.
Confusion is possible when navigating an airplane with VOR/DME-based RNAV, and it is essential that the pilot become familiar with the equipment installed. It is not unknown for pilots to operate inadvertently in one of the RNAV modes when the operation was not intended by overlooking switch positions or annunciators. The reverse has also occurred with a pilot neglecting to place the unit into one of the RNAV modes by overlooking switch positions or annunciators. As always, the prudent pilot is not only familiar with the equipment used, but never places complete reliance in just one method of navigation when others are available for crosscheck.