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 7-19] 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.
Learn more about all of your flight instruments with the Instrument Flying Handbook. This is the FAA’s primary pilot resource for instrument flight rules (IFR) covering everything pertinent to operating an aircraft in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) or without reference to outside visuals, relying solely on the information gleaned from the cockpit.