GIS for Aviation Safety – Improved Situational Awareness for Arrivals and Departures

November 10, 2014

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Within the field of aviation, GIS applications can be utilized to present geographic data so that safety is reinforced through an enhanced threat and error management (TEM) decision making process. Using GIS aviation applications, a pilot is able to see or “fly” a specific arrival or departure at an airport. Textual descriptions or 2D maps can be compiled into an interactive virtual model that can be reviewed from all angles. Threats such as controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) or other unrecognized hazards are more easily identified and mitigated before the flight ever operates.

The growth of GIS compatible data has created an environment where off-the-shelf programs can be utilized to present the information in a meaningful way for flight crew members. Through the use of layered information a pilot would be able to “see” an approach or departure by reviewing previous flights. This can be enhanced by overlaying navigation information against the terrain and/or highlighting specific areas of concern. This synthetic experience allows a pilot to more fully understand the arrival or departure challenges associated with an airport even if he/she has never flown there before.

As GIS applications and compatible data sources continue to grow, the cost barriers that previously existed for such programs have significantly decreased. All levels of operation, from a flight school to a major airline, can harness existing GIS applications to build pertinent, effective overviews that will allow pilots to better understand risks and therefore make better operating decisions.

As an example, an entity only needs access to Google Earth to start building an overview. Google Earth (GE) allows photos to be overlaid onto the depicted surface. An approach procedure that has been saved in a photo format can be overlaid against a specific airport. When latitude and longitude are provided in the approach procedure, it can be sized to match the latitude and longitude of the airport within GE. GE also allows the user to adjust the transparency of the overlay so that the terrain and landmarks can be distinguished while also depicting pertinent information from the approach procedure.

Within GE, a user can also build polygons that can be used to emphasize specific areas such as airspace, terrain or even navigation fixes. By illustrating these items, a pilot develops a better understanding of the environment which leads to increased situational awareness.

Another layer that can be added from readily available data is the flight path of previous flights arriving or departing from an airport. Websites such as provide radar tracks that can be opened in GE. These tracks allow a user to “fly” the flight path over the terrain with the layered approach procedure applied.

As a safety tool this type of GIS application provides tremendous insight about airports that may have special conditions associated with the arrival or departure. Conditions such as high terrain, prohibited airspace, restricted flight paths, etc. can be visualized.

The pictorials below are a sample of what can be depicted.

Figure 1. Washington’s Reagan National Airport (DCA) area, depicted in Google Earth without any overlays

Figure 2. DCA area depicted in Google Earth with the River Visual Rwy 19 approach and the prohibited airspace (P-56A and P-56B) overlaid

Figure 3. Yampa Valley Regional Airport near Hayden, Colorado (HDN). Depicted in Google Earth without any overlays

Figure 4. HDN depicted in Google Earth with the RNAV (GPS) Runway 28 and roads overlaid




Figure 5. HDN as seen in Google Earth with an approach overlay. The terrain on the approach is highlighted with red pylons. The need for an offset final approach course becomes easier to understand with the terrain highlighted.


Figure 6. HDN depicted in Google Earth with an approach overlay, terrain highlights and a flight track overlay. Flight track is courtesy of FlightAware (

The scenes generated in GE can be built into PowerPoint slides or captured as video so that the presentation can be tailored to an organization’s capabilities. Additional insight can also be tailored into this process based upon feedback from other safety programs or pilot reports.

The pictorials presented in this article were created with Google Earth, FlightAware (with permission) and photo overlays for the specific airport approaches. As GIS tools and applications continue to propagate, their implementation costs have decreased. A few of the open source platforms currently available are Google Earth, FlightAware, Sketchup, Grass GIS, Flightwise and Marble. These platforms and their low- to no-cost use provide cost effective aviation safety applications for operations of all sizes. Additional resources may also be found at the Open Source Geospatial Foundation. There are a number of providers for approach and departure navigation procedures which can be overlaid with Google Earth as a scanned document or a downloaded picture file. Always check to ensure that your utilization is in compliance with the terms of use for each platform.


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