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What They Do

Airline Pilots, Copilots, and Flight Engineers Career Video

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Air navigation is not what it used to be. The days when flight navigators used fold-up maps and the stars to plot a course through the sky are long gone. Modern navigation computers now take care of that. This reality has reshaped and redefined the duties of flight navigators.

Generally, a flight navigator is responsible for planning the course that will take an aircraft to a location in the least amount of time without compromising its safety and that of its passengers.

A flight navigator also has to keep the plane on course once in the air. And that aspect of the job has not changed. They are still responsible for getting a plane from one point on the map to another.

"But that is just a tiny little portion of the flight," says Captain Stephane Morency. He is a military navigator.

Why? Technology.

Flight navigators used to spend hours looking over maps and weather forecasts to plot the best route. And once the plane was in the air, the navigator had to rely on features in the sky and on the ground to help keep the plane on course. Early navigators, for instance, used railroads and rivers to find out when it was time to make a turn.

Navigators today rely on global positioning systems and inertial navigation systems. They just have to punch in the coordinates of where they want to go, and most planes today can get there almost without any human help.

"A navigator as you know it is not really required," says Morency.

The only real mistake air navigators can make today is punch in the wrong numbers, says Bob Hawgood. He worked as an air navigator for two commercial airlines.

This reality has nearly eliminated the need for flight navigators in commercial aviation. And it has radically changed the job duties of flight navigators in the military.

They are still responsible for operating and managing the various navigation systems. But once they guide their plane into their area of operation, they assume tactical support roles. These include operating remote sensors, communications systems, jamming equipment and weapon delivery systems.

"You know where you are in the air, so you just have to focus more on the mission," says Captain Nathalie Frigon. She is a navigator in the military.

Working hours for navigators vary greatly, says Phil Rowe. He is a retired colonel in the United States Air Force and holds the designation of master navigator.

Evening and weekend work are the norm in commercial and military aviation. And if you serve as a flight navigator in the military, you may be on duty all the time.

Consider Rowe. He served as a navigator on a B-52 when he was in the Strategic Air Command during the 1960s. And because his unit was part of the nuclear strike force, he was on duty around the clock. He was also put on heightened alert twice a month.

And once you are in the air, you may stay up there as long as you are needed. "Bomber missions were the longest, some lasting 24 hours," says Rowe. "Fighter duty was the most fun and missions were [short], seldom more than three hours. In all cases, you reported at least an hour ahead of the scheduled takeoff time and were subject to post-flight tasks for at least another hour after each flight."

Physical requirements for this career are significant. Generally, you must have excellent hearing and vision. You have to clearly understand verbal commands and comments, and a lot of cockpit instruments are color-coded. Even a minor physical disability or medical condition may disqualify you from working in this field. And you have to pass a medical test.

"You don't have to be Arnold Schwarzenegger, but you do have to be in good physical shape," says Morency. That is because this job will put a lot of different demands on your body. Among those are long hours, confined working areas and severe, sudden changes in climate.

A recent mission took Frigon to Indonesia in the middle of its humid summer. "It was really hot," she says. She has also been to Africa. Not surprisingly, flight navigators travel a lot. "We are probably gone [from home] one-third of the year," she says.

Flight navigators also face significant job hazards. The likelihood that your plane will crash or collide with another plane is small, but it exists. And if you serve as a navigator in the military, you run the risk of injury and death in combat.

At a Glance

Keep the plane on course

  • You need excellent hearing and vision, and you'll have to pass a medical exam
  • Once you're in the air, you stay up as long as you're needed
  • To become a flight navigator in the military, you'll have to be a commissioned officer


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