As pilots are we too dependent on GPS?

With the ease of GPS navigation available to pilots, I’m concerned multiple IFR routes within Australia would become unusable if the entire GPS system failed.  I certainly do not want the GPS system to fail, it provides so much for aviation.  However, it is an unfortunate scenario that needs to be considered.  So I ask the question; as pilots are we too dependent on GPS?

Many Australian pilots may have noticed, the number of ground based radio navigation aids in recent years has reduced dramatically.  I have no doubt it helps reduce costs dramatically, which is understandable.  The reduction in the number of ground based radio navigation aids makes it more difficult to fly IFR without the aid of GPS and this is where my concerns lay.

The entire civilian aviation industry is very dependent on GPS.  It’s a bit like putting all of your eggs in one basket.  Any good investor will tell you NOT to invest all of your money in one stock. Not only that, you need to diversify your stock portfolio and the class of investments. Eg: Stocks, Bonds, Real Estate, Super (401K), Forex, etc.  The point is to reduce risk.  The entire aviation industry is all about reducing risk and increasing safety.

I am not worried about pilots potentially losing their radio navigation skills.  These skills can be re-taught through reading and by flight instructors in simulators.  My concern is a lot of the current IFR routes will not meet legal requirements if the entire GPS system failed.  Specifically, some routes will not have full radio navigation aid rated coverage.

Looking at some of the low level IFR routes, some routes require GPS.  The reason being the distance between fixes is greater than the ground based radio navigation aid rated coverage.  One example in Victoria, Australia – V279 the route running from NOGIP to STONE to WENDY to ML.  NOGIP is overhead the Portland (YPOD) CTAF airport, but there are no ground based radio navigation aids at YPOD.

As pilots are we too dependent on GPS

L2 Low Enroute IFR Chart – Effective 9th November 2017. Courtesy Airservices Australia.

NOGIP can be identified from the Mount Gambier VOR/DME 47nm away in South Australia.  From NOGIP it’s 80nm to STONE.  It is a further 84nm to the ML VOR/DME.  The rated coverage of a VOR/DME between 5,000 ft and 10,000 ft is 90nm.  Both STONE and WENDY can be identified as they are within the rated coverage of the ML VOR/DME.  However, from NOGIP to STONE requires GPS coverage for 74nm.  (Hamilton (HM) NDB rated coverage is 45nm day and night.)

Why would I consider the possibility of the entire GPS system failing?  It seems like a highly ridiculous and unlikely scenario.  I hope that is the case, GPS is wonderful for civilian aviation.  However, there has been a lot of chatter about the possibility of a serious sized war erupting in the near future.  This cannot be ignored.

All branches of the US military use GPS as part of their operational tactics.  After all, the United States Air Force own and operate the entire GPS system.  I have no doubt the US military also train to operate without GPS; in case it becomes unusable for whatever reason.

There has been a lot of talk about war recently and many nations appear to be ramping up their military budgets and training, just in case.  My concern is the US military heavily relies on the GPS system for navigation. Any large scale nation wanting to engage the US military would try to disadvantage them anyway possible.

It seems to me, and this only my personal opinion, the entire GPS system seems like an obvious target to disrupt or destroy. This would make US military operations more difficult and less accurate.  The US military would continue to operate without GPS, but not as accurately.  I suspect losing the entire GPS system world wide would have a much more profound effect on civilian populations, especially in aviation.

Through a reliable and well informed friend of mine, I learned what would likely take place if the GPS system failed.  If the GPS system was to suddenly fail in Australia, some low level IFR routes would most likely be immediately suspended.  All GPS RNAV arrival and departure procedures would also have to be suspended.  It’s also quite possible RVSM would be initially effected too.  As you can probably guess, this would cause many delays across the entire aviation network and potentially jeopardize the lives of people in-flight at the time of a GPS system failure.  Let’s hope it never comes to that.

Feel free to let me know your thoughts on this topic either by commenting below, sending an email or contacting me through social media.  Thank you.

Ashley Wincer

An Indianapolis based Australian working towards building flight time to meet the US ATP requirements. Currently works full time as a contractor for multiple Part 121 US Airlines. Previously has worked as a US Flight Dispatcher, Ramp Agent and Operations Ramp Controller.

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