Can GPS Spoofing Fool a Flight Navigator?

By Scott Spangler on March 4th, 2024

Given the state of the world, GPS spoofing has been in the news with unsettling frequency. Transmitting a counterfeit GPS signal to override the real deal serves the real purpose of guiding aerial, maritime, or terrestrial vehicles where someone other than the vehicles master wants to go. Because the mind works in mysterious ways, reading the spoofing articles led me to wonder, does the FAA still issue the Flight Navigator Certificate, and do people still pursue them?

According to the US Civil Airmen Statistics, the FAA is still issuing flight navigator certificates, but in rapidly decreasing numbers. It certificated 126 navigators in 2013, 102 in 2015, 64 in 2017, 40 in 2019, 30 in 2021, and 29 in 2022. The 2023 numbers aren’t out yet, but if you hold a navigator’s certificate, I would love to talk with you. If you’re interested, you can email me through my byline link at the end of this post.

Next stop, 14 CFR 63, Subpart C—Flight Navigators. The certification requirements are in the ATP realm, at least 21 years old, read, write, speak, and understand English, hold at least a second class medical, and comply with the knowledge requirements in § 63.53, the experience requirements in § 63.55, skill requirements in § 63.57. As expected, there’s a written test and a practical test, which is itemized in Appendix A.

(Good luck trying to find, let alone rent an airplane for the flight test: “An applicant will provide an aircraft in which celestial observations can be taken in all directions. Minimum equipment shall include a table for plotting, a drift meter or absolute altimeter, an instrument for taking visual bearings, and a radio direction finder.”)

The knowledge requirements start with flight navigation, flight planning, cruise control, and practical meteorology, including analysis of weather maps, weather reports, and weather forecasts; and weather sequence abbreviations, symbols, and nomenclature. Then there’s the types of air navigation facilities and procedures in general use and how to calibrate and use air navigation instruments.

Applicants must be a graduate of an FAA-approved flight navigator course or document “(1) Satisfactory determination of his position in flight at least 25 times by night by celestial observations and at least 25 times by day by celestial observations in conjunction with other aids; and (2) At least 200 hours of satisfactory flight navigation including celestial and radio navigation and dead reckoning.” (Google did not reveal any approved civilian navigator courses. There is, however, FAA-H-8083-18 Flight Navigator Handbook. I couldn’t find it on the FAA website, but the Abbott Aerospace UKK Techniccal Library has it for download. )

Scrolling through the list of exam areas in Appendix A was revealing…a few examples:

Identify without a star identifier, at least six navigational stars and all planets available for navigation at the time of the examination and explain the method of identification.

Take and plot one 3-star fix and 3 LOP’s [Line of Position] of the sun. Plotted fix or an average of LOP’s must fall within 5 miles of the actual position of the observer.

Demonstrate or explain the compensation and swinging of a liquid-type magnetic compass.

Demonstrate or explain a method of aligning one type of drift meter.

Demonstrate or explain a method of aligning an astro-compass or periscopic sextant.

Prepare a cruise control (howgozit) chart from the operator’s data.

Determine ground speed and wind by the timing method with a drift meter. When a drift meter is not part of the aircraft’s equipment, an oral examination on the procedure and a problem shall be completed.

There’s way more. Technology like GPS now provides most of this information, but that reconnects me to the challenge presented by spoofing. How do pilots gather the information to safely reach their destinations? Scott Spangler—Editor


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2 Responses to “Can GPS Spoofing Fool a Flight Navigator?”

  1. Chris Nicosia Says:

    Hi Scott, very intriguing indeed. I never knew such an FAA certification existed but I do now.
    The one question I have is who designates the examiners?
    I knew astronauts had to know celestial navigation as did SR-71 pilots since the jet had a celestial window on top.
    Fred Noonan in Amelia Earharts around the world flight navigated this way….. but that was 1937. Thanks for a great thinker 🤔

  2. Scott Spangler Says:

    Chris, thanks for our kind words!
    The FAA designates the examiners, just as does for airmen and mechanic certificates.
    The Air Force still trains navigators, and I remember my dad, a World War II naval aviator, telling me he learned to identify the stars during his training, which he passed along to me when I was a boy.

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