The simplest and least sophisticated way to keep track of position, course, and speed is to use pilotage, a method in which landmarks are noted and compared with an aeronautical chart. Whether these landmarks are observed visually or on radar, this technique of air navigation is usually called flying under visual flight regulations (VFR). These establish the minimum weather conditions under which pilotage is permissible.
Pilotage is not satisfactory for long trips, especially over water or terrain lacking distinctive features. In these cases, or when weather conditions do not permit navigation by visual reference, planes must fly according to instrument flight regulations (IFR), which require that the aircraft be equipped with the necessary position-finding instruments and that the pilot be trained in operating those instruments. Also required under IFR is the filing of a flight plan with air traffic control authorities at the departure point. The aircraft is then cleared for a given course and a given altitude. Air traffic controllers monitor the craft until it reaches its destination.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.