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Compass Systems (Part Two) Magnetic Compass Induced Errors

in Flight Instruments

The magnetic compass is the simplest instrument in the panel, but it is subject to a number of errors that must be considered.


The Earth rotates about its geographic axis; maps and charts are drawn using meridians of longitude that pass through the geographic poles. Directions measured from the geographic poles are called true directions. The magnetic North Pole to which the magnetic compass points is not collocated with the geographic North Pole, but is some 1,300 miles away; directions measured from the magnetic poles are called magnetic directions. In aerial navigation, the difference between true and magnetic directions is called variation. This same angular difference in surveying and land navigation is called declination.

Figure 7-32 shows the isogonic lines that identify the number of degrees of variation in their area. The line that passes near Chicago is called the agonic line. Anywhere along this line the two poles are aligned, and there is no variation. East of this line, the magnetic North Pole is to the west of the geographic North Pole and a correction must be applied to a compass indication to get a true direction.

Isogonic lines

Figure 7-32. Isogonic lines are lines of equal variation.

Flying in the Washington, D.C., area, for example, the variation is 10° west. If a pilot wants to fly a true course of south (180°), the variation must be added to this, resulting in a magnetic course of 190° to fly. Flying in the Los Angeles, California, area, the variation is 14° east. To fly a true course of 180° there, the pilot would have to subtract the variation and fly a magnetic course of 166°. The variation error does not change with the heading of the aircraft; it is the same anywhere along the isogonic line.


The magnets in a compass align with any magnetic field. Local magnetic fields in an aircraft caused by electrical current flowing in the structure, in nearby wiring or any magnetized part of the structure, conflict with the Earth’s magnetic field and cause a compass error called deviation.

Deviation, unlike variation, is different on each heading, but it is not affected by the geographic location. Variation error cannot be reduced or changed, but deviation error can be minimized when an AMT performs the maintenance task known as “swinging the compass.”

Most airports have a compass rose, which is a series of lines marked out on a ramp or maintenance runup area where there is no magnetic interference. Lines, oriented to magnetic north, are painted every 30°, as shown in Figure 7-33.

compass rose

Figure 7-33. Utilization of a compass rose aids compensation for deviation errors.

The AMT aligns the aircraft on each magnetic heading and adjusts the compensating magnets to minimize the difference between the compass indication and the actual magnetic heading of the aircraft. Any error that cannot be removed is recorded on a compass correction card, like the one in Figure 7-34, and placed in a cardholder near the compass. The pilot can taxi the aircraft to the compass rose and maneuver the aircraft to the headings prescribed by the AMT, and if authorized to do so, the AMT can also taxi and maneuver the aircraft; however, only the AMT can adjust the compass or complete the compass coreection card. If the pilot wants to fly a magnetic heading of 120° and the aircraft is operating with the radios on, the pilot should fly a compass heading of 123°.

compass correction card

Figure 7-34. A compass correction card shows the deviation correction for any heading.

The corrections for variation and deviation must be applied in the correct sequence and is shown below, starting from the true course desired.

Step 1: Determine the Magnetic Course

True Course (180°) ± Variation (+10°) = Magnetic Course (190°)

The magnetic course (190°) is steered if there is no deviation error to be applied. The compass card must now be considered for the compass course of 190°.

Step 2: Determine the Compass Course

Magnetic Course (190°, from step 1) ± Deviation (–2°, from correction card) = Compass Course (188°)

NOTE: Intermediate magnetic courses between those listed on the compass card need to be interpreted. Therefore, to steer a true course of 180°, the pilot would follow a compass course of 188°.

To find the true course that is being flown when the compass course is known:

Compass Course ± Deviation = Magnetic Course ± Variation= True Course

Dip Errors

The lines of magnetic flux are considered to leave the Earth at the magnetic North Pole and enter at the magnetic South Pole. At both locations the lines are perpendicular to the Earth’s surface. At the magnetic equator, which is halfway between the poles, the lines are parallel with the surface. The magnets in a compass align with this field, and near the poles they dip, or tilt, the float and card. The float is balanced with a small dip-compensating weight, to dampen the effects of dip when operating in the middle latitudes of the northern hemisphere. This dip (and weight) causes two very noticeable errors: northerly turning error and acceleration error.

The pull of the vertical component of the Earth’s magnetic field causes northerly turning error, which is apparent on a heading of north or south. When an aircraft flying on a heading of north makes a turn toward east, the aircraft banks to the right, and the compass card tilts to the right. The vertical component of the Earth’s magnetic field pulls the northseeking end of the magnet to the right, and the float rotates, causing the card to rotate toward west, the direction opposite the direction the turn is being made. [Figure 7-35]

Northerly turning error

Click to Enlarge - Figure 7-35. Northerly turning error.

If the turn is made from north to west, the aircraft banks to the left and the compass card tilts down on the left side. The magnetic field pulls on the end of the magnet that causes the card to rotate toward east. This indication is again opposite to the direction the turn is being made. The rule for this error is: when starting a turn from a northerly heading, the compass indication lags behind the turn.

When an aircraft is flying on a heading of south and begins a turn toward east, the Earth’s magnetic field pulls on the end of the magnet that rotates the card toward east, the same direction the turn is being made. If the turn is made from south toward west, the magnetic pull starts the card rotating toward west—again, in the same direction the turn is being made. The rule for this error is: when starting a turn from a southerly heading, the compass indication leads the turn.

In acceleration error, the dip-correction weight causes the end of the float and card marked N (the south-seeking end) to be heavier than the opposite end. When the aircraft is flying at a constant speed on a heading of east or west, the float and card is level. The effects of magnetic dip and the weight are approximately equal. If the aircraft accelerates on a heading of east [Figure 7-36], the inertia of the weight holds its end of the float back and the card rotates toward north. As soon as the speed of the aircraft stabilizes, the card swings back to its east indication. If, while flying on this easterly heading, the aircraft decelerates, the inertia causes the weight to move ahead and the card rotates toward south until the speed again stabilizes.

Effects of acceleration error

Click to Enlarge - Figure 7-36. Effects of acceleration error.

When flying on a heading of west, the same things happen. Inertia from acceleration causes the weight to lag, and the card rotates toward north. When the aircraft decelerates on a heading of west, inertia causes the weight to move ahead and the card rotates toward south.

A mnemonic, or memory jogger, for the effect of acceleration error is the word “ANDS” (acceleration—north, deceleration— south). Acceleration causes an indication toward north; deceleration causes an indication toward south.

Oscillation Error

Oscillation is a combination of all of the other errors, and it results in the compass card swinging back and forth around the heading being flown. When setting the gyroscopic heading indicator to agree with the magnetic compass, use the average indication between the swings.

51DPcJTcMwL._SX381_BO1,204,203,200_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.


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