Helm and Navigation

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Flight operations aboard any space-faring starship are more complicated than within a 2-Dimensional space due to the lack of gravity to dictate directions we sense physically. Because of this, starships pilots are left to interpret flight operations by instrumentation only.

With the lack of gravity there is an absence of a true sense of up and down. As a means of reference it is generally agreed upon by most races that the galactic plane is the horizontal reference (a ‘galactic horizon’) and ‘up’ is perpendicular to the galactic plane in the direction of the north polar field. So while there is no physical limitations imposed of what direction is up, there are indications of such, and are used as a means for navigational reference.

Helm Controls

The helm (or helm control) is a term for the flight control operations onboard a starship or shuttle. This station is responsible for controlling the flight operations of a ship, including warp, impulse and thruster control. Helm is also responsible for controlling the ship during a landing sequence or docking procedure.

Ops (left) and Conn (right) positions aboard a Galaxy-class starship.

In the 22nd century, Earth Star Fleet had one solitary helm station. The helmsman of 23rd century vessels worked in concert with the "Navigation Officer," who plotted the ship's course. The helmsman controlled both the speed and attitude of the ship, as well as the ship's weapon and shield systems. By the 24th century, the helm and navigation stations became combined as the "Conn Officer" position, and control of weapons and defenses were now handled by the tactical station.

The helmsman (or Helm Officer) is considered to be a tactical position used aboard Star Fleet starships. The actual helm console is usually near the front of a Star Fleet ship's bridge.

Navigation Officer

In Star Fleet, the navigator holds the position responsible for projecting the course of a starship, and for determining a ship's position, velocity and direction in relationship to a course. The navigator can also use the ship's navigational sensors to determine the positions, speeds and trajectories of other objects. Additionally, in the 2250s and 2260s, a navigator was in charge of coordinating phaser crews for real and simulated combat and for firing the weapons. By the end of 2266, this last function had shifted to the helm controls.

On Federation Star Fleet vessels of the 23rd century, the navigator was a bridge officer, while the helm officer's role was usually combined with that of the tactical officer.

Conn Officer

The flight controller (also known as conn or conn officer) is the crew member on a Federation starship assigned the duty of piloting the vessel.
This position combines the roles of the navigator and helmsman used in the past.

To have "the conn" is to have sole responsibility to control, or direct by order, the movements of a ship. On a Star Fleet vessel, this responsibility resides with the Deck Officer, also known as the Officer of the Day. The conn responsibility must be assigned temporarily if the assigned officer leaves the bridge.

The word "conn" dates back to the eleventh century, in England. It comes from the Anglo-Saxon word conne, which means "to know" or "to be skillful."

This information was obtained from the Tolani Maritime Institute.


Ship directions.jpg

Bow - Forward part of the ship
Stern - Rear part of a ship
Port - Left side of a ship
Starboard - Right side of a ship
Dorsal - Upper / top side of a ship
Ventral - Bottom / underneath side of a ship

Starship Navigation

When dealing with navigation, within a 3-Dimensional space, especially within a large area, there are two ways to reference direction. One is relative to yourself, the other is relative to where you want to go.

When dealing with the directional control of a ship, one must understand that there are no limitations, aside from those the inertial dampers and structural integrity will handle. While the ship can handle a full skidding (flat, with no bank angle imposed) turn, the standard procedure is to induce a bank angle for all turns; this allows more thrusters to be able to assist in turning the ship.

Relative Bearing

Example of Relative Bearings

This is direction in reference to your ship. Bearing angles are always relative to the longitudinal axis of the ship, and are a full 360 degrees; this is the same both in turn and pitch. Both pitch and bank begins at 0. Unless specifically ordered, all directional changes whether to left are right are implied to be at the pilots discretion. In such, a general practice is the turn direction requiring the least amount of correction will be used. For example, all bearing angles 1–180 degrees mean right turns (or pitch up), while angles 181–359 degrees are left turns (or pitch down).

All ordered directions are given in 3 digits, a 90 degree turn to the right would be ordered as 090. The first 3 digits given are always for horizontal changes, turns, where as the second set, separated by a dash in text and verbally stated as ‘mark’ denotes the change in pitch.

Examples: “Turn to a heading of 080 mark 179” would mean a turn of 80 degrees to starboard (right) and a vertical pitch change of 179 degrees. This would cause the ship to be travelling ninety degrees to port of its original direction of travel, inverted relative to the galactic plane.

For orders to ‘inverted’ directions, such as those from the example above, the helm officer will make all effort to keep the ship aligned to the galactic plane by rolling the ship to level. The only exceptions to this are 0 marker 090 and 0 mark 270 where roll has no relevance unless there is a risk of collision.


Example of a course line

“Course” or “Heading” both have the same meaning: The angle between the ship’s track and the straight line to the core of the galaxy. The course is the principal information necessary for the helm officer to a navigate to a distant point. However caution is necessary when using this data. The reason is that since the galaxy is disc shaped, the lines to the core are not parallel but converging. This means that during long trips on a given course the ship’s track will be curved.

Another important issue in setting a course is the random drift caused by the local gravitational fields all along the flight track. The belief that a flight in interstellar space will evolve without any drift is a misconception resulting from the fact that the space – time fabric in interstellar space is almost flat. Following the geometric equivalence, massive space bodies’ gravity fields interact with space – time fabric and finally distort it. The result of this is that the flight path of a starship will be subjected to cross track errors, all along the trip, due to the random drift caused on the space ship following the local distortion of the space – time fabric. As distances in space are enormous, an infinitesimal error or drift of a fraction of degree will result to considerable cross-track errors in tracks and therefore the ship risks never reaching its intended destination point.

It is therefore not advisable to plan a long trip on a given course but rather to give the destination's sector, star system, or galactic coordinates, and leave the ships flight computer to compensate for the deviations from the initial track, and to plot a direct non-curved course. Preparing a flight plan manually involves breaking the track into many "legs" with way points, from star to star and for each leg to have a specific course; this method is recommended for travel in unexplored sectors of space.

As space is in a 3 dimensional plane, all courses must be given as such. Much like a relative bearing, courses will be given as two sets of three digit numbers separated in writing with a dash and verbally as ‘mark’. As for coordinates, they include the latitude and longitude along with the altitude of the destination.

How Far/Fast?

Space is huge. A single sector of space is usually about twenty light-years across, which means it can take a while to traverse it. To get an idea of how fast a ship needs to go at a certain speed, we have calculated a Warp Factor table. For the full information about Warp Factors and how they are calculated, see the Warp Factor page.

A copy of the table is below:

Warp Factor Table

Full Impulse 270 Million 0.25 20 Years 80 Years
Warp 1 1078 Million 1 5 Years 20 Years
Warp 2 11 Billion 10 6 Months 3 Years
Warp 3 42 Billion 39 2 Months 1 Year
Warp 4 109 Billion 102 18 Days 2 Months
Warp 5 230 Billion 214 9 Days 1 Month
Warp 6 423 Billion 392 5 Days 19 Days
Warp 7 700 Billion 656 3 Days 11 Days
Warp 8 1103 Billion 1,024 2 Days 7 Days
Warp 9 1.63 Trillion 1,516 1 Day 5 Days
Warp 9.2 1.78 Trillion 1,649 1 Day 4 Days
Warp 9.6 2.06 Trillion 1,909 23 Hours 4 Days
Warp 9.9 3.29 Trillion 3,053 14 Hours 2 Days
Warp 9.99 8.53 Trillion 7,912 6 Hours 22 Hours
Warp 9.999 215 Trillion 199,516 13 Minutes 53 Minutes
Warp 10 Infinite Infinite 0 0