Aircraft Heading Indicator – The Magnetic Compass in Aviation

Aircraft Heading Indicator – The Magnetic Compass in Aviation:

An aircraft’s heading is communicated to the pilot through the heading indicator (HI), often referred to as a directional gyro or direction indicator (DI).

The Heading Indicator, or HI, is also known as the Direction Indicator, or DI, or the Directional Gyro. This aviation instrument is almost universally used to show heading information. The heading indicator is often found on the instrument panel, facing the pilot.

This is because, together with the altimeter and airspeed indicator, it is one of the most important instruments needed to ensure an accurate and safe flight.


The magnetic compass is most often used in small aircraft to determine their heading, although it has a number of flaws, including an error caused by the Earth’s magnetic field’s “dip” or downward slope. Dip error makes the magnetic compass impossible to use in any flight state other than unaccelerated, absolutely straight, and level because it causes it to read inaccurately if the aircraft is in a bank or during acceleration or deceleration. While the gyroscopic heading indication is unaffected by dip and acceleration inaccuracies, the pilot would normally steer the aircraft using it as a reference to correct this. The heading indicator will be periodically reset by the pilot to the direction indicated by the magnetic compass.


The aircraft’s yawing plane, which is the plane defined by the longitudinal and horizontal axes of the aircraft, is coupled by an erecting mechanism to the gyroscope that powers the heading indicator. As a result, an indication mistake occurs if the aircraft’s yawing plane arrangement differs from the local Earth horizontal. The heading indication is set up so that the gyro axis drives the display, which is a circular, degrees-accurate compass card. Either electrical power or filtered air flow from a suction pump (or, in high-altitude aircraft, a pressure pump) driven by the aircraft’s engine is used to rotate the gyroscope.

The heading indication will wander over time (actual drift) due to the Earth’s rotation (, 15° per hour, apparent drift), as well as modest cumulative mistakes brought on by faulty gyro balance, and must be frequently reset using a magnetic compass. [4] [a] The apparent drift will be the largest over the poles as indicated by sin Latitude. A latitude nut can be placed (on the ground only) to cause an actual wander in the gyroscope that is (ideally) equal to and opposite to the impact of Earth rate drift. Otherwise, during routine in-flight checks, the direction indication would need to be manually realigned once every ten to fifteen minutes. New pilots frequently make navigation errors because they forget to do this.


A magnetic sensor known as a flux gate is “slaved” to some more expensive heading indicators. The heading indicator is continuously corrected by a servo mechanism while the flux gate continuously senses the Earth’s magnetic field. [4] By removing the requirement for manual realignment every ten to fifteen minutes, these “slaved gyros” lessen the workload on the pilot.

Although the drift may be predicted, there will be slight deviations from this fundamental model caused, among other things, by gimbals error (controlling the aircraft away from the local horizontal). The incorrect adjustment of the latitude nut is a frequent cause of inaccuracy in this situation (to the opposite hemisphere for example). The table, however, enables comparison with realignment corrections performed in light of the magnetic compass in order to assess if an indication is acting as anticipated. Unwanted transport wander is a result of perceived drift.

How to Align the Heading Indicator to the Magnetic Compass:

The Heading Indicator has a small knob that may be used to realign it with the compass while in flight, correcting for both mechanical and perceived drift. During flight, this should be done every ten to fifteen minutes; in windy or stormy conditions, or when doing maneuvers like aerobatics, it should be done much more frequently.

You must perform the following in order to manually align the heading indicator:

Fly steadily in a straight line toward a point of reference in front of you. The textbooks recommend performing this task in still air, but in practice, that is obviously not always achievable.

Wait until the magnetic compass is steady while maintaining the aircraft’s nose steadily on the reference point. Next, pay close attention to the compass heading.

Maintaining your heading with care, turn the knob on the heading indicator until it displays the same heading as the compass.

Verify that the heading indicated by your compass remains the same and continues to line up with the heading indicator. If not, go through the entire process again.

Although it might seem difficult, I assure you that it is not. Setting the heading indicator at regular intervals becomes automatic and only requires a few seconds with some flying experience.


The heading indicator on an airplane is a highly common and helpful device. Although it is not necessary during flying, having one is undoubtedly useful. Although the specifics of how it works are somewhat intricate, utilizing it is very straightforward.

Knowing your heading is crucial for locating your destination because it is the primary indicator of heading information in an aircraft. Unfortunately, because to acceleration and turning faults, the magnetic compass is unreliable.

Because of this, almost all modern aircraft utilize a heading indicator instead of a compass, which is dependent on the earth’s magnetic field. Instead, heading indicators are gyroscopic instruments.

To determine the aircraft’s heading precisely, the Heading Indicator is then manually aligned to the compass. Although heading indicators are simple to operate, they do have some unique flaws and quirks, so pilots must fully comprehend them in order to utilize them effectively.

I hope I was able to shed some light on the aircraft heading indicator for you in this article. Is there anything concerning the aircraft heading indicator that has not been discussed in this article? What further valuable knowledge do you have regarding the aircraft heading indicator?

Feel free to share your thoughts in comments below and I would be happy to read and reply to them.

Thank you very much for spending your valuable time to read this article and see you soon with a new interesting topic in the next article.

4 thoughts on “Aircraft Heading Indicator – The Magnetic Compass in Aviation

  1. Hey there! I came across your article on Aircraft Heading Indicator and Magnetic Compass and I have to say, it was really interesting. I don’t know much about aviation, but your article explained everything so clearly that even a total novice like me could understand it.

    I never knew there was a difference between magnetic and true north, and I had no idea that it affected the readings on a compass. Your explanation of the heading indicator and how it uses gyroscopes to work was also really cool. It’s amazing how much technology goes into flying a plane!

    Overall, I think your article is a great resource for anyone who wants to learn about these instruments. It’s so important to have a basic understanding of how they work, especially for those who fly planes. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us, and I look forward to reading more of your articles in the future!

    1. Thanks for the feedback. There are many technical aspect of aircraft instruments. It is important to learn how to read aircraft compass so you know the direction you are going to. 

  2. Thank you for your post. 

    I have learnt a lot about how aircraft heading indicators are used and their inherent faults. 

    Are most aircraft instruments needing of some form of correction and manual, or human correction? It would seem to me that most aircrafts would require an experienced pilot to constantly be adjusting and re-calculating their needs due to the conditions and changing nature of flying. 

    Thank you for your post

    1. I believe a heading indicator will require manual correction if it cannot be corrected automatically. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *