There are six traditional flight instruments in most aircraft cockpits. Many of these instruments have taken on a more modern appearance over time, but even technologically advanced aircraft have traditional instruments to use as a backup in case the primary system fails. These six basic flight instruments include an airspeed indicator, attitude indicator, altimeter, vertical speed indicator, heading indicator, and turn coordinator. These instruments are the main source of cockpit flight information for pilots.
The airspeed indicator measures the speed of the aircraft through the air, but really this is the speed at which the air is flowing over the airplane. The dial is usually calibrated in nautical miles known as knots. The airspeed indicator is connected to the pitot static system. To give a reading of speed through the air, the flight instrument measures the difference between the dynamic pressure in the pitot tube and the atmospheric pressure from the static vent. When the airplane is standing still on the ground, the pressure in the two systems will be the same resulting in a reading of zero. However, when the airplane is travelling through the air, the dynamic pressure in the pitot system will increase and a reading is registered.
The attitude indicator is also called the artificial horizon, or the gyro horizon. It shows whether the wings are level and if the plane is climbing or descending. A pair of wings represents the attitude of the aircraft on the display; behind the aircraft is a ball. The top is blue, representing the sky, and the bottom half is usually brown, representing the ground. As the airplane maneuvers through the air a pair of wings on the display will show the degree of bank and pitch attitude. The Attitude Indicator is a gyroscopic Instrument as it uses a gyroscope to stabilize a horizon bar which stays parallel to the natural horizon. The miniature airplane in the center of the attitude Indicator will pitch and bank around the horizon bar to indicate the airplanes current attitude relative to the horizon.
The altimeter measures the altitude of the aircraft above sea level. Similar to a clock, an altimeter has three hands. The fastest moving hand reads in hundreds of feet; the shorter hand reads in thousands of feet; the longest hand, which moves the slowest, reads in tens of thousands of feet. The Altimeter reading is based on barometric pressure, and barometric pressure is constantly changing. This requires the altimeter to be set prior to every flight, and during flight as barometric pressure in your flying area changes.
The rate of climb and rate of descent are indicated on the vertical speed indicator (VSI). This is measured in feet per minute and displayed in hundreds of FPM on the front of the display. The VSI flight instrument measures the vertical speed that an aircraft is travelling at and is connected to the static air pressure system. There is a standard barometric pressure change with altitude changes, and this standard rate of change is calibrated to measure the aircraft’s change in altitude.
The heading indicator is the primary directional instrument used in flight. This component is gyroscopically stabilized, and is not as affected by banks, turns, and speed changes. The heading indicator must be set according to the magnetic compass indication before takeoff, and occasionally adjusted during flight.
This instrument gives information about the direction and rate of a turn. It also indicates if the turn is being flown in a coordinated flight path. If the aircraft is slipping or skidding during a turn, the ball or inclinometer in the bottom portion of the turn coordinator will not be centered. If the ball is not centered, the pilot must adjust the turn by using more or less rudder to correct for adverse yaw.
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