Your Guide to Aircraft Instrumentation

Advances in aviation instrumentation technology have enabled pilots to safely operate their aircraft in any condition. These instruments provide vital information about the aircraft's orientation, speed, and engine status, among other metrics. Entering the cockpit of a commercial plane for the first time might be overwhelming, with dozens of gauges, meters, and other indicators. Still, as long as you are familiar with the six main instruments, you will have a solid foundation. In this blog, we will detail the six flight instruments found on every aircraft, including their purpose, design, and variations.

Attitude Indicator

Also known as the artificial horizon, the attitude indicator provides the flight crew with both visual and quantifiable information about the aircraft's orientation. This instrument exists as a screen split horizontally, with the upper half being blue and the lower half displaying a brown color. The blue field represents the sky, while the brown area represents the ground. Additionally, a different color line lies fixed in the middle of the screen, representing the aircraft. Along the top of the device are reference lines that help the pilot determine the angle at which the plane is rolling. Although some experimental attitude indicators quantify this value in radians, the international standard is displayed as degrees.

Airspeed Indicator

The airspeed indicator (ASI) provides real-time information on the aircraft's airspeed. Depending on the plane's max speed and country of origin, the units in which the airspeed is displayed may differ. For example, many aircraft in the United States display airspeed in knots (kn), which is equal to one nautical mile/hour, whereas other aircraft may use miles per hour (MPH), kilometers per hour (km/h), or meters per second (m/s). Nonetheless, nearly all ASIs are circular in design and feature indicator markings that decrease in scale as the gauge reaches the aircraft's upper limits. Also included behind the indicator markings is a color-coded region, with green representing the optimal speed, yellow serving as a warning, and red indicating that the aircraft is operating near its max speed.


Aircraft contain an external static port that collects and measures the pressure of atmospheric air at all stages of flight. Since atmospheric pressure is inversely proportional to altitude, a simple calculation is made by the computer and displayed in feet or meters in the cockpit.

Heading Indicator

Serving as a critical element in navigation, a heading indicator indicates the direction in which the aircraft is heading using a magnetic compass. Similar to other directional devices, this gauge features a static representation of the aircraft surrounded by markings labeled from 0-360 degrees, with 0 being set to north.

Turn Coordinator

Turn coordinators use a gyroscopic device that works to indicate the magnitude in which the aircraft is making a turn. The visible section of the gauge displays a representation of the plane, as well as a balance ball that helps the pilot determine if they are performing a coordinated turn, skid, or slip.

Visual Speed Indicator

This simple device provides information about the aircraft's rate of climb or descent. Much like the regular airspeed indicator, a visual speed indicator varies in its units depending on the aircraft design.


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