AE Unit 3: Navigation

How pilots plan their flights and find their way in the air


This unit looks at how pilots calculate their flight plans, how they navigate using the 6-pack of dials found in every plane, and how air traffic control systems monitor flights. Over the course of the unit, you’re expected to learn the following

  • How to fly a Cessna in the XPlane Flight Simulator
  • How to read the 6-pack of instruments on a pilot’s dashboard
  • How air traffic controllers manage flight paths
  • How to use VOR navigation to plan and conduct your own flight

Real planes require a focused pilot to fly correctly.  As mechanical systems start to interact with people as closely as planes and pilots, it’s important to consider how those systems communicate. As you investigate flight navigation, you’ll go through three major steps:

  • STEP 1: Learn how to fly a Cessna 172 in the XPlane simulator and take a cross country solo flight
  • STEP 2: Learn the basic criteria and constraints that air traffic controllers work with, and solve a series of flight control puzzles
  • STEP 3: Learn the details of VOR navigation, plan a flight, and complete the journey!

When you’re done, you will have looked at a wide range of topics in flight navigation.  Most importantly, you will have learned how pilots plan and follow their routes using VOR navigation.


(10 pts) About 2 days

We’ll start this unit with the XPlane flight simulator. XPlane is a very realistic flight simulator that can help demonstrate how control surfaces work, the physics of flight and airfoils, and how to navigate.  It’s also a fun flight simulator, so we’ll start with that!


(20 pts)  About 2 days

Airports are busy places, and air traffic controllers have the say in how planes come and go from certain areas.  In this part of the unit we’ll use a simplified computer simulation to investigate the challenge faced by air traffic controllers as they monitor incoming and outgoing flights.


(40 pts) About 5 days

Finally, we’ll learn how pilots plan and follow their flight paths using a process called V.O.R. Navigation.  With VOR Navigation we’ll be able to know where we’re flying even when we don’t recognize any landmarks.

Part 1: Cessna 172

Learning to fly using XPlane

XPlane Controls

In order to be able to discuss and practice aerial navigation, we need to know what’s it’s like to try and fly a plane.  Currently, the Lathrop engineering lab doesn’t have its own plane: instead, we’ll be exploring piloting using the XPlane Flight Simulator.  This flight simulator is MISSING TEXT HERE


Setup your controls and have a successful introductory flight including a successful take-off and landing

Complete the short cross country flight and print your flight map

 Have Mr. Benshoof confirm your flight map

First Flight

Getting Started in Plane

Cross Country Flight

KCOS – DEN Fly-Through

What’s Due In Part 1: Cessna 172

  • Setup
  • Cross Country Flight
  • Mr. Benshoof’s Confirmation

Here’s what’s due in Part 1: Cessna 172

  1. Setup XPlane and complete introductory flight
  2.  Complete the cross country flight
  3. Have Mr. Benshoof confirm your cross country flight

Part 2: Air Traffic Control

Explore the job of an air traffic controller and solve some puzzles

Air Traffic Controllers

NASA’s Sector 33 ATC Simulation

Another big part of navigation are air traffic controllers.  If you’re flying a plane near an airport, air traffic controllers may require you to change your course heading or change your speed to accommodate other planes and keep everyone flying safe.  The job of an air traffic controller is a challenging one, and here we get to experience the kinds of problems that they face.

Here, we’ll start by watching a short video on air traffic controllers to get a sense of what the job is like.  Then, we’ll have the chance to play a small game that simulates the kinds of questions and problems that air traffic controllers tackle on a daily basis.  We’ll see how good we would be at controlling air traffic!


 Take careful notes on the job of an air traffic controller and on the air traffic control simulation

 Start with the simple problems and move on to the complicated problems.  Complete the air traffic control challenges as defined to include 5 each of the 2, 3, 4, and 5-plane challenges!

 Have Mr. Benshoof check-off your completed challenges

Air Traffic Control Simulator


Air Traffic Control Hints

Now, work to complete 2 2-plane challenges, 5 3-plane challenges, 5 4-plane challenges, and 5 5-plane challenges in the NASA Sector 33 Air Traffic Control simulation!

What’s Due In Part 2: Air Traffic Control

  • Air Traffic Control Notes
  • Air Traffic Control Challenges
  • Mr. Benshoof’s check-off

Here’s what’s due in Part 2: Air Traffic Control

  1. Take careful notes on the air traffic control job and on the simulator
  2. Work through the assigned Air Traffic Control Challenges
  3.  Have Mr. Benshoof check-off your completed challenges

Part 3: VOR Navigation

Plan and conduct a flight using VOR navigation

VOR Reference

The most important thing when it comes to navigating as a pilot is having a plan before you leave on your flight, and then knowing how to read your dial indicators to keep you on course!  The majority of this unit is about pilot navigation using a system called “VHF Omnidirectional Range” (VOR) Navigation.  This system uses a network of VOR towers that emit a signal which your plane can identify.  Following these signals, pilots are able to navigate very efficiently and even identify their location if they get lost.

For this major part of the unit, you’ll learn how to plan a flight using VOR navigation and sectional charts.  You’ll do some work with the charts to become familiar with them before planning a detailed flight.  Once you’ve planned your flight, you’ll use XPlane to fly your Cessna 172 along the route your planned.  


 Take some detailed notes on VOR Navigation

 Take some detailed notes on the indicator 6-pack, focusing on the VOR

 Investigate the section charts and complete scavenger hunt

 Plan out a route on the section chart using VOR bearings

 Fly your route in XPlane, saving your flight map as proof of your success!

 Complete post-flight reflection

 Have Mr. Benshoof confirm your VOR Flight

Section Charts

Planning with VOR

Flying with VOR

What’s Due In Part 3: VOR Navigation

  • VOR Notes
  • Indicator Notes
  • Scavenger Hunt
  • VOR Route
  • VOR Flight
  • Reflection
  • Mr. Benshoof’s Confirmation

Here’s what’s due in Part 3: VOR Navigation

  1. Take detailed notes on VOR Navigation
  2.  Take detailed notes on the indicator 6-pack
  3.  Complete section chart scavenger hunt
  4.  Plan VOR route
  5. Fly your VOR route in XPlane
  6.  Complete post-flight reflection
  7. Have Mr. Benshoof confirm your VOR Flight

Double Check: Unit Expectations

Check what you need to have completed by the unit deadline

The purpose of this unit is to use the Engineering Design Process to wire, design, and build a working Bug Bot.  You should have had the chance to do some soldering, design your own Bug Bot, and use the tools in our makerspace to build your Bug Bot.  If you were really on-task and working hard, you should have also had time to decorate your Bug Bot to make it look super cool.  By the unit deadline, you should have completed and be able to submit the following items:

Engineering Notebook:

(Part 1) You should have taken notes on XPlane controls

(Part 2) You should have taken good notes on air traffic controllers and the air traffic control process

(Part 3) You should have taken good detailed notes on VOR navigation, navigation instruments, and on your flight reflection

Building & Making:

(Part 1) You should have completed the introductory take-off, flight, and landing

(Part 2) You should have completed your air traffic control challenges

(Part 3) You should have completed the Section Chart Scavenger Hunt

 (Part 3) You should have completed your own long distance VOR flight

Checkpoints & Quizzes:

(Part 1) Mr. Benshoof should have confirmed your cross-country flight

(Part 2) Mr. Benshoof should have checked-off your

(Part 3) Mr. Benshoof should have confirmed your final flight path and reflection