The little Pacific island nation was the first to incorporate GPS into its aviation system – and in doing so forever changed the way we get from Point A to distant Point B.

The descent into Fiji’s Nadi International Airport en route from Sydney is a spectacular one. After hundreds upon hundreds of kilometres of nothing but water, a string of barrier reefs announce themselves, made visible by the waves breaking against them. Then, the volcanic islands beyond them, mountainous and green and rocky all at once. Up ahead is Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu looms, too big to take in completely, even from this distance. Twin senses of vastness and remoteness mark this first impression.

It’s a remarkable landscape, and it’s made even more so by the fact that it ushered aviation into the 21st Century. The airspace above the islands was the first to incorporate the Global Positioning System, or as we all commonly know it, GPS, into its aviation system. In doing so, Fiji changed forever the way we get from Point A to distant Point B.

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GPS was developed by the United States military in the 1970s with the intention of improving upon existing navigation procedures. At the time, flight navigation relied largely on radar and visual routing. Since the 1940s, pilots had followed routes determined by land-based ‘beacons’, either in the form of radio signals or visual markers. It was an imperfect system. In Fiji, for example, only five control towers were equipped with a radio beacon, meaning that in 80% of the country’s huge airspace, pilots had no radar to rely on.

Things were trickiest over large bodies of water. With no radio beacons at all, pilots used dead reckoning, a navigational technique that uses the last known location to estimate the current location; and celestial navigation, which references the positions of celestial bodies like the sun, moon or a planet, as they measure up with the visible horizon. Until the second half of the 20th Century, the flight crew on trans-oceanic flights often included what was known as a flight navigator, who relieved the pilot of the considerable burden of navigation.

With GPS, an aircraft’s location could be continually and precisely updated by triangulating data between the satellites and its location on Earth. In 1978, the first of an eventual 24 satellites that would complete the GPS system went into orbit, kicking off a 15-year launch project.

Initially, the US Department of Defense considered charging the public to use its GPS system. But after a Korean airliner flew off course in 1983 and was shot down over the USSR – at the time, Soviet airspace was restricted – President Reagan announced that GPS would be made openly available with the hope of avoiding such mishaps in the future. This decision paved the way for companies to develop equipment for civilian use.

By the end of 1990, 16 GPS satellites were in place and functional, enough for GPS to work in most cases around the world. Individual receivers were now available to the general public from companies like Trimble Navigation. They proved helpful in a military capacity during the Persian Gulf War, and commercial pilots here and there were also using them unofficially. The potential of GPS was becoming apparent. But on the wider platform of commercial aviation, it needed to be tested in a controlled environment before widespread adoption could be on the table.

Enter Fiji. With its growing tourism industry increasing demand for flights within its borders, the small island nation was eager to improve its navigation system. As Norman Yee, former Civil Aviation Authority of Fiji (CAAF) chief executive officer, recalls in his memoir, Catching the Wind, a flight operations officer named Jack Snow came to work in Fiji from New Zealand around this time, bringing with him an enthusiasm for the new GPS technology. For the price of equipping just one airport with a radar-based ‘beacon’, it was estimated Fiji would be able to give every aircraft in its domestic fleet a GPS receiver.

And Fiji was well positioned to be the pioneer. For a small nation, its domestic aviation industry was well developed, with 19 commercial airfields, plus seven private airports. And with more than 300 islands spread over more than 500,000 sq km of ocean, testing could span land, sea, mountains, intense tropical weather patterns and long flight routes, all within a single airspace.

Fiji approached the US and its Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to volunteer as the testing ground for GPS navigation. The FAA agreed to fund the upgrade, supplying equipment and technical support in return for the knowledge it could take away from the trial. It would take well over a year to get the system ready; in addition to the installation of the equipment, new flight routes had to be charted, manuals developed and pilots and crew trained.

Ilaitia Tabakaucoro was an air traffic controller at the Nadi Airport when the GPS technology was put into place. During my visit to Fiji, I met with him at the airport, where CAAF’s headquarters are located. The main office sits next to the airport’s traffic control tower, perhaps the first in the world to handle commercial aircraft relying on GPS.

It put us right among the big boys as far as aviation is concerned

He remembers the first time he flew in a plane with GPS, with a couple of pilot friends heading from Nadi to a smaller island to the north-east. The plane had recently been equipped with GPS, but no-one was using it yet. They took off and followed the northern shore of Viti Levu until they reached the town of Volivoli – a visual beacon – at which point they veered left over the ocean. They waited to spot their destination island. But something was unusual with the winds that day and the plane was blown further north than expected. It became clear that they were lost up in the air. That’s when Tabakaucoro remembered the GPS receiver and switched it on. Within minutes, they were back on track. This was a revelatory experience for a group accustomed to the old ways of navigating the skies.

The 24th and final satellite came online in late 1993, and in April 1994, Fiji officially became the first country in the world to incorporate GPS into its navigation system. It immediately served the small nation well. “We were quite excited about what we achieved,” Yee told me. “It put us right among the big boys as far as aviation is concerned.” It was a boon to the country’s flourishing tourism industry, as well.

Fiji proved that GPS could improve aviation in myriad ways, making it faster, more efficient and safer. In the quarter century since Fiji adopted GPS navigation for its domestic flights, the technology has been adopted around the globe, often with the direct help of Fiji’s new experts. There are also 31 satellites, with most of the original 24 having been retired and replaced.

Weather is no longer the hindrance it once was. “Before, the tendency was to return [to the originating airport] when you hit bad weather,” Tabakaucoro said. “GPS ensured you’d get to the destination.” Even in a storm. Even with terrible visibility.

Planes can now fly for hours over ocean with precise navigation, and more aircraft can safely be in the air at any given time. Instead of 100 miles between any two aircraft flying in the same direction, the officials at CAAF told me, international regulations now require just 23. A plane once had to fly 18 minutes behind the plane ahead of it. Today, that number has been reduced to 10. In addition, flight times have shortened since planes can now fly directly to a destination rather than from beacon to beacon.

Before GPS, aircraft were required to fly with enough fuel for a return trip in the event of being unable to land at their destination. After GPS made such a precaution unnecessary, they were able to lose that extra load. A UN report from 1996 concluded that the increased fuel efficiency meant that the GPS receivers in Fiji paid for themselves in just three months.

For all of our complaints about contemporary airports and flying, it might be a comfort to remember that thanks to the little Pacific island nation of Fiji, we are actually getting to our destinations faster and more safely than ever before.

Places That Changed the World is a BBC Travel series looking into how a destination has made a significant impact on the entire planet.

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