Airplane Attitude Instrument Flying

Using Analog Instrumentation

Attitude instrument flying is defined as the control of an aircraft’s spatial position by using instruments rather than outside visual references. Today’s aircraft come equipped with analog and/or digital instruments. Analog instrument systems are mechanical and operate with numbers representing directly measurable quantities, such as a watch with a sweep second hand. In contrast, digital instrument systems are electronic and operate with numbers expressed in digits. Although more manufacturers are providing aircraft with digital instrumentation, analog instruments remain more prevalent. This section acquaints the pilot with the use of analog flight instruments.

Any flight, regardless of the aircraft used or route flown, consists of basic maneuvers. In visual flight, aircraft attitude is controlled by using certain reference points on the aircraft with relation to the natural horizon. In instrument flight, the aircraft attitude is controlled by reference to the flight instruments. Proper interpretation of the flight instruments provides essentially the same information that outside references do in visual flight. Once the role of each instrument in establishing and maintaining a desired aircraft attitude is learned, a pilot is better equipped to control the aircraft in emergency situations involving failure of one or more key instruments.


Using an Electronic Flight Display

Attitude instrument flying is defined as the control of an aircraft’s spatial position by using instruments rather than outside visual references. As noted in Section I, today’s aircraft come equipped with analog and/or digital instruments. Section II acquaints the pilot with the use of digital instruments known as an electronic flight display (EFD).

The improvements in avionics coupled with the introduction of EFDs to general aviation aircraft offer today’s pilot an unprecedented array of accurate instrumentation to use in the support of instrument flying.

Until recently, most general aviation aircraft were equipped with individual instruments utilized collectively to safely maneuver the aircraft by instrument reference alone. With the release of the EFD system, the conventional instruments have been replaced by multiple liquid crystal display (LCD) screens. The first screen is installed in front of the left seat pilot position and is referred to as the primary flight display (PFD). [Figure 1] The second screen is positioned in approximately the center of the instrument panel and is referred to as the multifunction display (MFD). [Figure 2] The pilot can use the MFD to display navigation information (moving maps), aircraft systems information (engine monitoring), or should the need arise, a PFD. [Figure 3] With just these two screens, aircraft designers have been able to declutter instrument panels while increasing safety. This has been accomplished through the utilization of solid-state instruments that have a failure rate far lower than those of conventional analog instrumentation.

Airplane Attitude Instrument Flying
Figure 1. Primary flight display (PFD) and analog counterparts

Airplane Attitude Instrument Flying
Figure 2. Multifunction display (MFD)

Airplane Attitude Instrument Flying
Figure 3. Reversionary displays

However, in the event of electrical failure, the pilot still has emergency instruments as a backup. These instruments either do not require electrical power, or as in the case of many attitude indicators, they are battery equipped. [Figure 4]

Airplane Attitude Instrument Flying
Figure 4. Emergency back-up of the airspeed indicator, attitude indicator, and altitude indicator

Pilots flying under visual flight rules (VFR) maneuver their aircraft by reference to the natural horizon, utilizing specific reference points on the aircraft. In order to operate the aircraft in other than VFR weather, with no visual reference to the natural horizon, pilots need to develop additional skills. These skills come from the ability to maneuver the aircraft by reference to flight instruments alone. These flight instruments replicate all the same key elements that a VFR pilot utilizes during a normal flight. The natural horizon is replicated on the attitude indicator by the artificial horizon.

Understanding how each flight instrument operates and what role it plays in controlling the attitude of the aircraft is fundamental in learning attitude instrument flying. When the pilot understands how all the instruments are used in establishing and maintaining a desired aircraft attitude, the pilot is better prepared to control the aircraft should one or more key instruments fail or if the pilot should enter instrument flight conditions.

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