Aircraft Common Gyroscopic Instruments | Aircraft Systems

Aircraft Common Gyroscopic Instruments


Vacuum-Driven Attitude Gyros

The attitude indicator, or artificial horizon, is one of the most essential flight instruments. It gives the pilot pitch and roll information that is especially important when flying without outside visual references. The attitude indicator operates with a gyroscope rotating in the horizontal plane. Thus, it mimics the actual horizon through its rigidity in space. As the aircraft pitches and rolls in relation to the actual horizon, the gyro gimbals allow the aircraft and instrument housing to pitch and roll around the gyro rotor that remains parallel to the ground. A horizontal representation of the airplane in miniature is fixed to the instrument housing. A painted semisphere simulating the horizon, the sky, and the ground is attached to the gyro gimbals. The sky and ground meet at what is called the horizon bar. The relationship between the horizon bar and the miniature airplane are the same as those of the aircraft and the actual horizon. Graduated scales reference the degrees of pitch and roll. Often, an adjustment knob allows pilots of varying heights to place the horizon bar at an appropriate level. [Figure 1]

Aircraft Gyroscopic Instruments
Figure 1.
 A typical vacuum-driven attitude indicator shown with the aircraft in level flight (left) and in a climbing right turn (right)

In a typical vacuum-driven attitude gyro system, air is sucked through a filter and then through the attitude indicator in a manner that spins the gyro rotor inside. An erecting mechanism is built into the instrument to assist in keeping the gyro rotor rotating in the intended plane. Precession caused by bearing friction makes this necessary. After air engages the scalloped drive on the rotor, it flows from the instrument to the vacuum pump through four ports. These ports all exhaust the same amount of air when the gyro is rotating in plane. When the gyro rotates out of plane, air tends to port out of one side more than another. Vanes close to prevent this, causing more air to flow out of the opposite side. The force from this unequal venting of the air re-erects the gyro rotor. [Figure 2]

Aircraft Gyroscopic Instruments
Figure 2. The erecting mechanism of a vacuum-driven attitude indicator

Early vacuum-driven attitude indicators were limited in how far the aircraft could pitch or roll before the gyro gimbals contacted stops, causing abrupt precession and tumbling of the gyro. Many of these gyros include a caging device. It is used to erect the rotor to its normal operating position prior to flight or after tumbling. A flag indicates that the gyro must be uncaged before use. More modern gyroscopic instruments are built so they do not tumble, regardless of the angular movement of the aircraft about its axes.

In addition to the contamination potential introduced by the air-drive system, other shortcomings exist in the performance of vacuum-driven attitude indicators. Some are induced by the erection mechanism. The pendulous vanes that move to direct airflow out of the gyro respond not only to forces caused by a deviation from the intended plane of rotation, but centrifugal force experienced during turns also causes the vanes to allow asymmetric porting of the gyro vacuum air. The result is inaccurate display of the aircraft’s attitude, especially in skids and steep banked turns. Also, abrupt acceleration and deceleration imposes forces on the gyro rotor. Suspended in its gimbals, it acts similar to an accelerometer, resulting in a false nose-up or nose-down indication. Pilots must learn to recognize these errors and adjust accordingly.

Electric Attitude Indicators

Electric attitude indicators are very similar to vacuumdriven gyro indicators. The main difference is in the drive mechanism. Inside the gimbals of an electric gyro, a small squirrel cage electric motor is the rotor. It is typically driven by 115-volt, 400-cycle AC. It turns at approximately 21,000 rpm.

Other characteristics of the vacuum-driven gyro are shared by the electric gyro. The rotor is still oriented in the horizontal plane. The free gyro gimbals allow the aircraft and instrument case to rotate around the gyro rotor that remains rigid in space. A miniature airplane fixed to the instrument case indicates the aircraft’s attitude against the moving horizon bar behind it.

Electric attitude indicators address some of the shortcomings of vacuum-driven attitude indicators. Since there is no air flowing through an electric attitude indicator, air filters, regulators, plumbing lines and vacuum pump(s) are not needed. Contamination from dirt in the air is not an issue, resulting in the potential for longer bearing life and less precession. Erection mechanism ports are not employed, so pendulous vanes responsive to centrifugal forces are eliminated.

It is still possible that the gyro may experience precession and need to be erected. This is done with magnets rather than vent ports. A magnet attached to the top of the gyro shaft spins at approximately 21,000 rpm. Around this magnet, but not attached to it, is a sleeve that is rotated by magnetic attraction at approximately 44 to 48 rpm. Steel balls are free to move around the sleeve. If the pull of gravity is not aligned with the axis of the gyro, the balls fall to the low side. The resulting precession re-aligns the axis of rotation vertically.

Typically, electric attitude indicator gyros can be caged manually by a lever and cam mechanism to provide rapid erection. When the instrument is not getting sufficient power for normal operation, an off flag appears in the upper right hand face of the instrument. [Figure 3]

Aircraft Gyroscopic Instruments
Figure 3. Erecting and caging mechanisms of an electric attitude indicator

Gyroscopic Direction Indicator or Directional Gyro (DG)

The gyroscopic direction indicator or directional gyro (DG) is often the primary instrument for direction. Because a magnetic compass fluctuates so much, a gyro aligned with the magnetic compass gives a much more stable heading indication. Gyroscopic direction indicators are located at the center base of the instrument panel basic T.



A vacuum-powered DG is common on many light aircraft. Its basis for operation is the gyro’s rigidity in space. The gyro rotor spins in the vertical plane and stays aligned with the direction to which it is set. The aircraft and instrument case moves around the rigid gyro. This causes a vertical compass card that is geared to the rotor gimbal to move. It is calibrated in degrees, usually with every 30 degrees labeled. The nose of a small, fixed airplane on the instrument glass indicates the aircraft’s heading. [Figure 4]

Aircraft Gyroscopic Instruments
Figure 4. A typical vacuum-powered gyroscopic direction indicator, also known as a directional gyro

Vacuum-driven direction indicators have many of the same basic gyroscopic instrument issues as attitude indicators. Built-in compensation for precession varies and a caging device is usually found. Periodic manual realignment with the magnetic compass by the pilot is required during flight.

Turn Coordinators

Many aircraft make use of a turn coordinator. The rotor of the gyro in a turn coordinator is canted upwards 30°. As such, it responds not only to movement about the vertical axis, but also to roll movements about the longitudinal axis. This is useful because it is necessary to roll an aircraft to turn it about the vertical axis. Instrument indication of roll, therefore, is the earliest possible warning of a departure from straight-and-level flight.

Typically, the face of the turn coordinator has a small airplane symbol. The wing tips of the airplane provide the indication of level flight and the rate at which the aircraft is turning. [Figure 5]

Aircraft Gyroscopic Instruments
Figure 5.A turn coordinator senses and indicates the rate of both roll and yaw.

Turn-and-Slip Indicator

The turn-and-slip indicator may also be referred to as the turn and-bank indicator, or needle-and-ball indicator. Regardless, it shows the correct execution of a turn while banking the aircraft and indicates movement about the vertical axis of the aircraft (yaw). Most turn-and-slip indicators are located below the airspeed indicator of the instrument panel basic T, just to the left of the direction indicator.

The turn-and-slip indicator is actually two separate devices built into the same instrument housing: a turn indicator pointer and slip indicator ball. The turn pointer is operated by a gyro that can be driven by a vacuum, air pressure, or by electricity. The ball is a completely independent device. It is a round agate, or steel ball, in a glass tube filled with dampening fluid. It moves in response to gravity and centrifugal force experienced in a turn.

Turn indicators vary. They all indicate the rate at which the aircraft is turning. Three degrees of turn per second cause an aircraft to turn 360° in 2 minutes. This is considered a standard turn. This rate can be indicated with marks right and left of the pointer, which normally rests in the vertical position. Sometimes, no marks are present and the width of the pointer is used as the calibration device. In this case, one pointer width deflection from vertical is equal to the 3° per second standard 2-minute turn rate. Faster aircraft tend to turn more slowly and have graduations or labels that indicate 4-minute turns. In other words, a pointer’s width or alignment with a graduation mark on this instrument indicates that the aircraft is turning a 11⁄2° per second and completes a 360° turn in 4 minutes. It is customary to placard the instrument face with words indicating whether it is a 2-or 4-minute turn indicator. [Figure 6]

Aircraft Gyroscopic Instruments
Figure 6. Turn-and-slip indicator

The turn pointer indicates the rate at which an aircraft is turning about its vertical axis. It does so by using the precession of a gyro to tilt a pointer. The gyro spins in a vertical plane aligned with the longitudinal axis of the aircraft. When the aircraft rotates about its vertical axis during a turn, the force experienced by the spinning gyro is exerted about the vertical axis. Due to precession, the reaction of the gyro rotor is 90° further around the gyro in the direction of spin. This means the reaction to the force around the vertical axis is movement around the longitudinal axis of the aircraft. This causes the top of the rotor to tilt to the left or right. The pointer is attached with linkage that makes the pointer deflect in the opposite direction, which matches the direction of turn. So, the aircraft’s turn around the vertical axis is indicated around the longitudinal axis on the gauge. This is intuitive to the pilot when regarding the instrument, since the pointer indicates in the same direction as the turn. [Figure 7]

Aircraft Gyroscopic Instruments
Figure 7. 
The turn-and-slip indicator’s gyro reaction to the turning force in a right hand turn. The yaw force results in a force on the gyro 90° around the rotor in the direction it is turning due to precession. This causes the top of the rotor to tilt to the left. Through connecting linkage, the pointer tilts to the right

The slip indicator (ball) part of the instrument is an inclinometer. The ball responds only to gravity during coordinated straight-and-level flight. Thus, it rests in the lowest part of the curved glass between the reference wires. When a turn is initiated and the aircraft is banked, both gravity and the centrifugal force of the turn act upon the ball. If the turn is coordinated, the ball remains in place. Should a skidding turn exist, the centrifugal force exceeds the force of gravity on the ball and it moves in the direction of the outside of the turn. During a slipping turn, there is more bank than needed, and gravity is greater than the centrifugal force acting on the ball. The ball moves in the curved glass toward the inside of the turn.



As mentioned previously, often power for the turn-and slip indicator gyro is electrical if the attitude and direction indicators are vacuum powered. This allows limited operation off battery power should the vacuum system and the electric generator fail. The directional and attitude information from the turn-and-slip indicator, combined with information from the pitot static instruments, allow continued safe emergency operation of the aircraft.

Electrically powered turn-and-slip indicators are usually DC powered. Vacuum-powered turn-and-slip indicators are usually run on less vacuum (approximately 2 "Hg) than fully gimbaled attitude and direction indicators. Regardless, proper vacuum must be maintained for accurate turn rate information to be displayed.