While traveling at high altitudes through clouds and other debilitating weather, pilots will need more than sight to determine their exact location. One category of devices that make their way into every pilot’s arsenal are gyroscopic instruments, those of which include altitude indicators and directional gyroscopes. These instruments work in tandem with the pitot system to allow for precise and accurate navigation. To better understand how these instruments operate and the role they play in aviation, this blog will cover the ins and outs of gyroscopic equipment.
Gyro instruments work on the principle of gyroscopic inertia, meaning its components remain in uninterrupted motion during flight. Specifically, gyro devices contain spinning wheels or discs that rotate around an axis, typically kept in motion within a vacuum. During level flight, the rotational movement of the instrument becomes stabilized, and this wheel spins quite rapidly, typically 10,000 to 15,000 rpm. Deviations in flight will fail to dislodge the disc from its gimbal mount, while the case of the instrument will move in tandem with the aircraft. This translates to the movement of a needle or card on the face of the instrument.
Three basic gyroscopes comprise the attitude indicator (AI), heading indicator (HI), and turn coordinator (TC), all of which operate on the same principles in different manners. For example, the gyro wheel within the AI operates on two axes, which provides for both pitch and roll information on one instrument. Meanwhile, the HI places its gyro wheel spinning on the horizontal axis, the pivot aligned with the aircraft centerline. Regardless, the outer casing of all three begins to turn only in response to changes in flight, such as during yaw or other short-term movements in flight.
While reliable, gyroscopic instruments are generally dependable, they should be checked periodically as they are prone to inaccuracies. For example, the attitude indicator contains a set of weights intended to drive the instrument toward level flight by sensing gravity that will cancel out a 30-degree turn after ten minutes of unleveled flight. Another example is the HI’s tendency towards precession, moving from the set magnetic heading over time. Since the AI and HI are usually powered by the same pneumatic system, it is prudent to have another gyro instrument independent from them. That is the turn coordinator, or turn and bank coordinator, either of which is usually powered electrically. Spinning on the horizontal axis, these instruments are oriented parallel to the wingspan.
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