Latitude and Longitude (Meridians and Parallels)

The equator is an imaginary circle equidistant from the poles of the Earth. Circles parallel to the equator (lines running east and west) are parallels of latitude. They are used to measure degrees of latitude north (N) or south (S) of the equator. The angular distance from the equator to the pole is one-fourth of a circle or 90°. The 48 conterminous states of the United States are located between 25° and 49° N latitude. The arrows in Figure 1 labeled “Latitude” point to lines of latitude.

Latitude and Longitude (Meridians and Parallels)
Figure 1. Meridians and parallels—the basis of measuring time, distance, and direction

Meridians of longitude are drawn from the North Pole to the South Pole and are at right angles to the Equator. The “Prime Meridian,” which passes through Greenwich, England, is used as the zero line from which measurements are made in degrees east (E) and west (W) to 180°. The 48 conterminous states of the United States are between 67° and 125° W longitude. The arrows in Figure 1 labeled “Longitude” point to lines of longitude.

Any specific geographical point can be located by reference to its longitude and latitude. Washington, D.C., for example, is approximately 39° N latitude, 77° W longitude. Chicago is approximately 42° N latitude, 88° W longitude.

Time Zones

The meridians are also useful for designating time zones. A day is defined as the time required for the Earth to make one complete rotation of 360°. Since the day is divided into 24 hours, the Earth revolves at the rate of 15° an hour. Noon is the time when the sun is directly above a meridian; to the west of that meridian is morning, to the east is afternoon.

The standard practice is to establish a time zone for each 15° of longitude. This makes a difference of exactly 1 hour between each zone. In the conterminous United States, there are four time zones. The time zones are Eastern (75°), Central (90°), Mountain (105°), and Pacific (120°). The dividing lines are somewhat irregular because communities near the boundaries often find it more convenient to use time designations of neighboring communities or trade centers.

Figure 2 shows the time zones in the conterminous United States. When the sun is directly above the 90th meridian, it is noon Central Standard Time. At the same time, it is 1 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, 11 a.m. Mountain Standard Time, and 10 a.m. Pacific Standard Time. When Daylight Saving Time is in effect, generally between the second Sunday in March and the first Sunday in November, the sun is directly above the 75th meridian at noon, Central Daylight Time.

Latitude and Longitude (Meridians and Parallels)
Figure 2. Time zones in the conterminous United States

These time zone differences must be taken into account during long flights eastward—especially if the flight must be completed before dark. Remember, an hour is lost when flying eastward from one time zone to another, or perhaps even when flying from the western edge to the eastern edge of the same time zone. Determine the time of sunset at the destination by consulting the flight service station (FSS) and take this into account when planning an eastbound flight.

In most aviation operations, time is expressed in terms of the 24-hour clock. ATC instructions, weather reports and broadcasts, and estimated times of arrival are all based on this system. For example: 9 a.m. is expressed as 0900, 1 p.m. is 1300, and 10 p.m. is 2200.

Because a pilot may cross several time zones during a flight, a standard time system has been adopted. It is called Universal Coordinated Time (UTC) and is often referred to as Zulu time. UTC is the time at the 0° line of longitude which passes through Greenwich, England. All of the time zones around the world are based on this reference. To convert to this time, a pilot should do the following:

Eastern Standard Time...........Add 5 hours
Central Standard Time...........Add 6 hours
Mountain Standard Time.......Add 7 hours
Pacific Standard Time............Add 8 hours

For Daylight Saving Time, 1 hour should be subtracted from the calculated times.

Measurement of Direction

By using the meridians, direction from one point to another can be measured in degrees, in a clockwise direction from true north. To indicate a course to be followed in flight, draw a line on the chart from the point of departure to the destination and measure the angle that this line forms with a meridian. Direction is expressed in degrees, as shown by the compass rose in Figure 3.

Latitude and Longitude (Meridians and Parallels)
Figure 3. Compass rose

Because meridians converge toward the poles, course measurement should be taken at a meridian near the midpoint of the course rather than at the point of departure. The course measured on the chart is known as the true course (TC). This is the direction measured by reference to a meridian or true north (TN). It is the direction of intended flight as measured in degrees clockwise from TN.

As shown in Figure 4, the direction from A to B would be a TC of 065°, whereas the return trip (called the reciprocal) would be a TC of 245°.

Latitude and Longitude (Meridians and Parallels)
Figure 4. Courses are determined by reference to meridians on aeronautical charts

The true heading (TH) is the direction in which the nose of the aircraft points during a flight when measured in degrees clockwise from TN. Usually, it is necessary to head the aircraft in a direction slightly different from the TC to offset the effect of wind. Consequently, numerical value of the TH may not correspond with that of the TC. This is discussed more fully in subsequent sections in this site. For the purpose of this discussion, assume a no-wind condition exists under which heading and course would coincide. Thus, for a TC of 065°, the TH would be 065°. To use the compass accurately, however, corrections must be made for magnetic variation and compass deviation.


Variation is the angle between TN and magnetic north (MN). It is expressed as east variation or west variation depending upon whether MN is to the east or west of TN.

The north magnetic pole is located close to 71° N latitude, 96° W longitude and is about 1,300 miles from the geographic or true north pole, as indicated in Figure 5. If the Earth were uniformly magnetized, the compass needle would point toward the magnetic pole, in which case the variation between TN (as shown by the geographical meridians) and MN (as shown by the magnetic meridians) could be measured at any intersection of the meridians.

Latitude and Longitude (Meridians and Parallels)
Figure 5. Magnetic meridians are in red while the lines of longitude and latitude are in blue. From these lines of variation (magnetic meridians), one can determine the effect of local magnetic variations on a magnetic compass

Actually, the Earth is not uniformly magnetized. In the United States, the needle usually points in the general direction of the magnetic pole, but it may vary in certain geographical localities by many degrees. Consequently, the exact amount of variation at thousands of selected locations in the United States has been carefully determined. The amount and the direction of variation, which change slightly from time to time, are shown on most aeronautical charts as broken magenta lines called isogonic lines that connect points of equal magnetic variation. (The line connecting points at which there is no variation between TN and MN is the agonic line.) An isogonic chart is shown in Figure 6. Minor bends and turns in the isogonic and agonic lines are caused by unusual geological conditions affecting magnetic forces in these areas.

Latitude and Longitude (Meridians and Parallels)
Figure 6. Note the agonic line where magnetic variation is zero

On the west coast of the United States, the compass needle points to the east of TN; on the east coast, the compass needle points to the west of TN.

Zero degree variation exists on the agonic line where MN and TN coincide. This line runs roughly west of the Great Lakes, south through Wisconsin, Illinois, western Tennessee, and along the border of Mississippi and Alabama. Compare Figures 6 and 7.

Latitude and Longitude (Meridians and Parallels)
Figure 7. Effect of variation on the compass

Because courses are measured in reference to geographical meridians that point toward TN, and these courses are maintained by reference to the compass that points along a magnetic meridian in the general direction of MN, the true direction must be converted into magnetic direction for the purpose of flight. This conversion is made by adding or subtracting the variation indicated by the nearest isogonic line on the chart.

For example, a line drawn between two points on a chart is called a TC as it is measured from TN. However, flying this course off the magnetic compass would not provide an accurate course between the two points due to three elements that must be considered. The first is magnetic variation, the second is compass deviation, and the third is wind correction. All three must be considered for accurate navigation.

Magnetic Variation

As mentioned in the paragraph discussing variation, the appropriate variation for the geographical location of the flight must be considered and added or subtracted as appropriate. If flying across an area where the variation changes, then the values must be applied along the route of flight appropriately. Once applied, this new course is called the magnetic course.

Magnetic Deviation

Because each aircraft has its own internal effect upon the onboard compass systems from its own localized magnetic influencers, the pilot must add or subtract these influencers based upon the direction he or she is flying. The application of deviation (taken from a compass deviation card) compensates the magnetic course unique to that aircraft’s compass system (as affected by localized magnetic influencers) and it now becomes the compass course. Therefore, the compass course, when followed (in a no wind condition), takes the aircraft from point A to point B even though the aircraft heading may not match the original course line drawn on the chart.

If the variation is shown as “9° E,” this means that MN is 9° east of TN. If a TC of 360° is to be flown, 9° must be subtracted from 360°, which results in a magnetic heading of 351°. To fly east, a magnetic course of 081° (090° – 9°) would be flown. To fly south, the magnetic course would be 171° (180° – 9°). To fly west, it would be 261° (270° – 9°). To fly a TH of 060°, a magnetic course of 051° (060° – 9°) would be flown.

Remember, if variation is west, add; if east, subtract. One method for remembering whether to add or subtract variation is the phrase “east is least (subtract) and west is best (add).”


Determining the magnetic heading is an intermediate step necessary to obtain the correct compass heading for the flight. To determine compass heading, a correction for deviation must be made. Because of magnetic influences within an aircraft, such as electrical circuits, radio, lights, tools, engine, and magnetized metal parts, the compass needle is frequently deflected from its normal reading. This deflection is called deviation. The deviation is different for each aircraft, and it also may vary for different headings in the same aircraft. For instance, if magnetism in the engine attracts the north end of the compass, there would be no effect when the plane is on a heading of MN. On easterly or westerly headings, however, the compass indications would be in error, as shown in Figure 8. Magnetic attraction can come from many other parts of the aircraft; the assumption of attraction in the engine is merely used for the purpose of illustration.

Latitude and Longitude (Meridians and Parallels)
Figure 8. Magnetized portions of the airplane cause the compass to deviate from its normal indications

Some adjustment of the compass, referred to as compensation, can be made to reduce this error, but the remaining correction must be applied by the pilot.

Proper compensation of the compass is best performed by a competent technician. Since the magnetic forces within the aircraft change because of landing shocks, vibration, mechanical work, or changes in equipment, the pilot should occasionally have the deviation of the compass checked. The procedure used to check the deviation is called “swinging the compass” and is briefly outlined as follows.

The aircraft is placed on a magnetic compass rose, the engine started, and electrical devices normally used (such as radio) are turned on. Tailwheel-type aircraft should be jacked up into flying position. The aircraft is aligned with MN indicated on the compass rose and the reading shown on the compass is recorded on a deviation card. The aircraft is then aligned at 30° intervals and each reading is recorded. If the aircraft is to be flown at night, the lights are turned on and any significant changes in the readings are noted. If so, additional entries are made for use at night. The accuracy of the compass can also be checked by comparing the compass reading with the known runway headings.

A deviation card, similar to Figure 9, is mounted near the compass showing the addition or subtraction required to correct for deviation on various headings, usually at intervals of 30°. For intermediate readings, the pilot should be able to interpolate mentally with sufficient accuracy. For example, if the pilot needed the correction for 195° and noted the correction for 180° to be 0° and for 210° to be +2°, it could be assumed that the correction for 195° would be +1°. The magnetic heading, when corrected for deviation, is known as compass heading.

Latitude and Longitude (Meridians and Parallels)
Figure 9. Compass deviation card

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