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Course Intercepts and Distance Measuring Equipment (DME)

in Navigation

Course interceptions are performed in most phases of instrument navigation. The equipment used varies, but an intercept heading must be flown that results in an angle or rate of intercept sufficient to solve a particular problem.

Rate of Intercept

Rate of intercept, seen by the aviator as bearing pointer or HSI movement, is a result of the following factors:

  • The angle at which the aircraft is flown toward a desired course (angle of intercept)
  • True airspeed and wind (GS)
  • Distance from the station

Angle of Intercept

The angle of intercept is the angle between the heading of the aircraft (intercept heading) and desired course. Controlling this angle by selection/adjustment of the intercept heading is the easiest and most effective way to control course interceptions. Angle of intercept must be greater than the degrees from course, but should not exceed 90°. Within this limit, adjust to achieve the most desirable rate of intercept.

When selecting an intercept heading, the key factor is the relationship between distance from the station and degrees from the course. Each degree, or radial, is 1 NM wide at a distance of 60 NM from the station. Width increases or decreases in proportion to the 60 NM distance. For example, 1 degree is 2 NM wide at 120 NM—and ½ NM wide at 30 NM. For a given GS and angle of intercept, the resultant rate of intercept varies according to the distance from the station. When selecting an intercept heading to form an angle of intercept, consider the following factors:

  • Degrees from course
  • Distance from the station
  • True airspeed and wind (GS)

Distance Measuring Equipment (DME)

Distance measuring equipment (DME) consists of an ultra high frequency (UHF) navigational aid with VOR/DMEs and VORTACs. It measures, in NM, the slant range distance of an aircraft from a VOR/DME or VORTAC (both hereafter referred to as a VORTAC). Although DME equipment is very popular, not all aircraft are DME equipped.

To utilize DME, the pilot should select, tune, and identify a VORTAC, as previously described. The DME receiver, utilizing what is called a “paired frequency” concept, automatically selects and tunes the UHF DME frequency associated with the VHF VORTAC frequency selected by the pilot. This process is entirely transparent to the pilot. After a brief pause, the DME display shows the slant range distance to or from the VORTAC. Slant range distance is the direct distance between the aircraft and the VORTAC, and is therefore affected by aircraft altitude. (Station passage directly over a VORTAC from an altitude of 6,076 feet above ground level (AGL) would show approximately 1.0 NM on the DME.) DME is a very useful adjunct to VOR navigation. A VOR radial alone merely gives line of position information. With DME, a pilot may precisely locate the aircraft on that line (radial).

Most DME receivers also provide GS and time-to-station modes of operation. The GS is displayed in knots (NMPH). The time-to-station mode displays the minutes remaining to VORTAC station passage, predicated upon the present GS. GS and time-to-station information is only accurate when tracking directly to or from a VORTAC. DME receivers typically need a minute or two of stabilized flight directly to or from a VORTAC before displaying accurate GS or time-to-station information.

Some DME installations have a hold feature that permits a DME signal to be retained from one VORTAC while the course indicator displays course deviation information from an ILS or another VORTAC.

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