A critical aspect of navigating an aircraft is ensuring you are heading in the right direction, and pilots can maintain their flight path by consulting the heading indicator. While heading indicators are recognized for being vital and reliable, it is important to understand what they are showing you and how they work. To begin, the heading indicator is referred to as a primary flight instrument, belonging to a group of six basic cockpit instruments that every aircraft is equipped with. In a typical cockpit, it is located in the middle of the instrument panel, just below the artificial horizon.
Heading indicators enable pilots to see the direction the aircraft’s nose is pointing, or the longitudinal axis in more technical terms. Similar to a compass, a heading indicator is disc-like and is divided into 90 degree increments. There also may be a letter indicating in which direction the aircraft is facing at each cardinal point. These cardinal points denote North, Northeast, East, Southeast, South, Southwest, West, and Northwest. Since the heading indicator is divided into tiny 1 degree segments, flying between the aforementioned cardinal points is possible. For instance, a pilot could fly a heading somewhere between North and Northeast which would be about 28 degrees, give or take a few degrees.
To avoid confusion with other instruments, many have an airplane symbol in the middle with the nose pointing forward, up toward the top of the instrument panel. On most heading indicators, there is a distinctive line at the top of the instrument called a lubber line. To read the heading, look at the number underneath this line. Regardless of such distinctions, the heading indicator is still conflated with other instruments, such as the course indicator. The biggest visible difference is that the heading indicator displays the direction in which the aircraft is pointing, while the course indicator provides the direction in which the aircraft is flying.
It is important to consider the effect wind has on these instruments. The course, on rare occasions, will match the heading in completely still air. However, if there is an element of crosswind where the aircraft is pointing, its course over the ground will be slightly different. It is worth noting that the heading indicator does not work automatically. In fact, during cross-country navigation, it is paramount that the heading indicator is calibrated to read the same as the magnetic compass on board. To understand why this is important, we will cover how a heading indicator works.
Unlike a compass which relies on magnets to be aligned to North, compasses used on aircraft work by utilizing magnetic North as their datum or fixed reference point. Heading indicators work by using a predetermined datum based on the mechanical inner workings of the instrument. Put in another way, a heading indicator is considered a gyroscopic instrument, and their variations are defined by their ability to maintain rigidity in space. A gyroscope, itself, is a weighted wheel that spins around an axis. With enough speed and enough mass around its edges, the axis around which it is spinning will always point to the same place.
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