Gyroscopic Flight Instruments

Several flight instruments utilize the properties of a gyroscope for their operation. The most common instruments containing gyroscopes are the turn coordinator, heading indicator, and the attitude indicator. To understand how these instruments operate requires knowledge of the instrument power systems, gyroscopic principles, and the operating principles of each instrument.

Gyroscopic principles

Any spinning object exhibits gyroscopic properties. A wheel or rotor designed and mounted to utilize these properties is called a gyroscope. Two important design characteristics of an instrument gyro are great weight for its size, or high density, and rotation at high speed with low friction bearings.

There are two general types of mountings; the type used depends upon which property of the gyro is utilized. A freely or universally mounted gyroscope is free to rotate in any direction about its center of gravity. Such a wheel is said to have three planes of freedom. The wheel or rotor is free to rotate in any plane in relation to the base and is balanced so that, with the gyro wheel at rest, it remains in the position in which it is placed. Restricted or semi-rigidly mounted gyroscopes are those mounted so that one of the planes of freedom is held fixed in relation to the base.

There are two fundamental properties of gyroscopic action: Rigidity in space and Precession.

Rigidity in Space

Rigidity in space refers to the principle that a gyroscope remains in a fixed position in the plane in which it is spinning. An example of rigidity in space is that of a bicycle wheel. As the bicycle wheels increase speed, they become more stable in their plane of rotation. This is why a bicycle is unstable and maneuverable at low speeds and stable and less maneuverable at higher speeds.

By mounting this wheel, or gyroscope, on a set of gimbal rings, the gyro is able to rotate freely in any direction. Thus, if the gimbal rings are tilted, twisted, or otherwise moved, the gyro remains in the plane in which it was originally spinning. [Figure 1-18]

Figure 1-18. Regardless of the position of its base, a gyro tends to remain rigid in space, with its axis of rotation pointed in a constant direction.


Precession is the tilting or turning of a gyro in response to a deflective force. The reaction to this force does not occur at the point at which it was applied; rather, it occurs at a point that is 90° later in the direction of rotation. This principle allows the gyro to determine a rate of turn by sensing the amount of pressure created by a change in direction. The rate at which the gyro precesses is inversely proportional to the speed of the rotor and proportional to the deflective force.

Using the example of the bicycle, precession acts on the wheels in order to allow the bicycle to turn. While riding at normal speed, it is not necessary to turn the handle bars in the direction of the desired turn. A rider simply leans in the direction that he or she wishes to go. Since the wheels are rotating in a clockwise direction when viewed from the right side of the bicycle, if a rider leans to the left, a force is applied to the top of the wheel to the left. The force actually acts 90° in the direction of rotation, which has the effect of applying a force to the front of the tire, causing the bicycle to move to the left. There is a need to turn the handlebars at low speeds because of the instability of the slowly turning gyros and also to increase the rate of turn.

Precession can also create some minor errors in some instruments. [Figure 1-19] Precession can cause a freely spinning gyro to become displaced from its intended plane of rotation through bearing friction, etc. Certain instruments may require corrective realignment during flight, such as the heading indicator.

Figure 1-19. Precession of a gyroscope resulting from an applied deflective force.

Sources of Power

In some aircraft, all the gyros are vacuum, pressure, or electrically operated. In other aircraft, vacuum or pressure systems provide the power for the heading and attitude indicators, while the electrical system provides the power for the turn coordinator. Most aircraft have at least two sources of power to ensure at least one source of bank information is available if one power source fails. The vacuum or pressure system spins the gyro by drawing a stream of air against the rotor vanes to spin the rotor at high speed, much like the operation of a waterwheel or turbine. The amount of vacuum or pressure required for instrument operation varies, but is usually between 4.5 “Hg and 5.5 “Hg.

One source of vacuum for the gyros is a vane-type enginedriven pump that is mounted on the accessory case of the engine. Pump capacity varies in different aircraft, depending on the number of gyros.

A typical vacuum system consists of an engine-driven vacuum pump, relief valve, air filter, gauge, and tubing necessary to complete the connections. The gauge is mounted in the aircraft’s instrument panel and indicates the amount of pressure in the system (vacuum is measured in inches of mercury less than ambient pressure).

As shown in Figure 1-20, air is drawn into the vacuum system by the engine-driven vacuum pump. It first goes through a filter, which prevents foreign matter from entering the vacuum or pressure system. The air then moves through the attitude and heading indicators where it causes the gyros to spin. A relief valve prevents the vacuum pressure, or suction, from exceeding prescribed limits. After that, the air is expelled overboard or used in other systems, such as for inflating pneumatic deicing boots.

Figure 1-20. Typical vacuum system.

It is important to monitor vacuum pressure during flight, because the attitude and heading indicators may not provide reliable information when suction pressure is low. The vacuum, or suction, gauge is generally marked to indicate the normal range. Some aircraft are equipped with a warning light that illuminates when the vacuum pressure drops below the acceptable level.

When the vacuum pressure drops below the normal operating range, the gyroscopic instruments may become unstable and inaccurate. Cross-checking the instruments routinely is a good habit to develop.