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Magnetism (Part One)

in Flight Instruments

The Earth is a huge magnet, spinning in space, surrounded by a magnetic field made up of invisible lines of flux. These lines leave the surface at the magnetic north pole and reenter at the magnetic South Pole.

Lines of magnetic flux have two important characteristics: any magnet that is free to rotate will align with them, and an electrical current is induced into any conductor that cuts across them. Most direction indicators installed in aircraft make use of one of these two characteristics.

The Basic Aviation Magnetic Compass

One of the oldest and simplest instruments for indicating direction is the magnetic compass. It is also one of the basic instruments required by 14 CFR part 91 for both VFR and IFR flight.

Magnetic Compass Overview

A magnet is a piece of material, usually a metal containing iron, which attracts and holds lines of magnetic flux. Regardless of size, every magnet has two poles: a north pole and a south pole. When one magnet is placed in the field of another, the unlike poles attract each other and like poles repel.

An aircraft magnetic compass, such as the one in Figure 3-16, has two small magnets attached to a metal fl oat sealed inside a bowl of clear compass fluid similar to kerosene. A graduated scale, called a card, is wrapped around the fl oat and viewed through a glass window with a lubber line across it. The card is marked with letters representing the cardinal directions, north, east, south, and west, and a number for each 30° between these letters. The final “0” is omitted from these directions; for example, 3 = 30°, 6 = 60°, and 33 = 330°. There are long and short graduation marks between the letters and numbers, with each long mark representing 10° and each short mark representing 5°.

Figure 3-16. A Magnetic Compass. The vertical line is called the lubber line.

Figure 3-16. A Magnetic Compass. The vertical line is called the lubber line.

Magnetic Compass Construction

The float and card assembly has a hardened steel pivot in its center that rides inside a special, spring-loaded, hard-glass jewel cup. The buoyancy of the fl oat takes most of the weight off the pivot, and the fluid damps the oscillation of the fl oat and card. This jewel-and-pivot type mounting allows the fl oat freedom to rotate and tilt up to approximately 18° angle of bank. At steeper bank angles, the compass indications are erratic and unpredictable.

The compass housing is entirely full of compass fluid. To prevent damage or leakage when the fluid expands and contracts with temperature changes, the rear of the compass case is sealed with a flexible diaphragm, or with a metal bellows in some compasses.

Magnetic Compass Theory of Operations

The magnets align with the Earth’s magnetic field and the pilot reads the direction on the scale opposite the lubber line. Note that in Figure 3-16, the pilot sees the compass card from its backside. When the pilot is flying north as the compass shows, east is to the pilot’s right, but on the card “33”, which represents 330° (west of north), is to the right of north. The reason for this apparent backward graduation is that the card remains stationary, and the compass housing and the pilot turn around it, always viewing the card from its backside.

A compensator assembly mounted on the top or bottom of the compass allows an aviation maintenance technician (AMT) to create a magnetic field inside the compass housing that cancels the influence of local outside magnetic fields. This is done to correct for deviation error. The compensator assembly has two shafts whose ends have screwdriver slots accessible from the front of the compass. Each shaft rotates one or two small compensating magnets. The end of one shaft is marked E-W, and its magnets affect the compass when the aircraft is pointed east or west. The other shaft is marked N-S and its magnets affect the compass when the aircraft is pointed north or south.

Magnetic Compass Induced Errors

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 north magnetic 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 3-17 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 pole is to the west of the geographic pole and a correction must be applied to a compass indication to get a true direction.

Figure 3-17. Isogonic lines are lines of equal variation.

Figure 3-17. Isogonic lines are lines of equal variation.

Flying in the Washington, D.C. area, for example, the variation is 10° west. If the pilot wants to fly a true course of south (180°), the variation must be added to this resulting in a magnetic course to fly of 190°. Flying in the Los Angeles, CA area, the variation is 14° east. To fly a true course of 180° there, the pilot would have to subtract the variation and fl y 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 fl owing 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 a pilot or 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 taxiway or ramp at some location where there is no magnetic interference. Lines, oriented to magnetic north, are painted every 30°, as shown in Figure 3-18.

Figure 3-18. Utilization of a Compass Rose Aids Compensation for Deviation Errors.

Figure 3-18. Utilization of a Compass Rose Aids Compensation for Deviation Errors.

The pilot or 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 3-19, and placed in a cardholder near the compass. If the pilot wants to fly a magnetic heading of 120° and the aircraft is operating with the radios on, the pilot should fl y a compass heading of 123°.

Figure 3-19. A compass correction card shows the deviation correction for any heading.

Figure 3-19. 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 fl own when the compass course is known:

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



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