How does a Pilot Stay Oriented?

Six instruments provide pilots with information about an airplane’s motion and orientation with respect to the ground. These instruments allow them to fly safely even when they cannot see the ground or horizon.

Airplane Instruments

Airplane control panels have instruments that help a pilot maintain control.  Using these instruments to monitor an airplane's position, rather than outside visual references, is known as attitude instrument flying.  All airplanes have six basic instruments: airspeed indicator, attitude indicator, altimeter, turn coordinator, heading indicator, and vertical speed indicator.

Which Three Instruments Work by Measuring Air Pressure?

To gather air pressure information, some instruments rely on a device called a Pitot-static tube, which is mounted on the airplane’s nose or on the leading edge of a wing.

The tube faces forward and senses the pressure of the oncoming airflow. This so-called total pressure (or ram pressure) changes with the airplane’s speed through the air. Through holes along the side of the tube, another sensor measures the local atmospheric pressure, or static pressure. Static pressure goes down as you go up. The altimeter, airspeed indicator, and vertical speed indicator all rely on the Pitot-static tube. 

Which Three Instruments Work by Using Gyroscopes?

A gyroscope is a rapidly spinning wheel mounted on a set of swivels (gimbals) that allows it to rotate. Once set in motion, the wheel tends to maintain its orientation, regardless of how the housing in which it is mounted tilts. A gyroscope within an instrument can provide a fixed plane of reference that does not change as the airplane rolls, pitches, or yaws. The heading indicator, attitude indicator, and turn coordinator rely on gyroscopes.

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How do pilots see where they're going in bad weather?


Two sets of rules govern the operation of aircraft. Pilots operating under visual flight rules (VFR) fly solely by reference to outside visual cues. VFR allows a pilot to operate an aircraft in weather conditions clear enough to see where … more

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