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Accurate Flight Instruments: How Directional Gyros Work

How Directional Gyros Work

September 6, 2019

As a pilot, making good time is always great, but knowing where you are is more important. That’s why you need accurate flight instruments to operate from point A to B safely, which is where the directional gyro comes in. Directional gyros indicate the direction that the aircraft is heading.


How Does a Directional Gyro Work?

Directional gyros, also called heading indicators or direction indicators, are the fastest moving component in a piston-powered aircraft. They can spin at up to 24,000 rpm, 400 revolutions a second, and are among a plane’s most critical systems. At a glance, the directional gyro looks like a compass. In fact, the shortcomings of the compass are remedied by the directional gyro.

Directional gyros are unaffected by the conditions that compromise a compass. The directional gyro uses a gyroscope that resists change to its position. It’s connected to a compass card, which moves with changes to the aircraft heading and displays the compass rose direction in 5-degree increments. Mechanical friction eventually catches up and will cause the directional gyro to precess.

Normal procedure is to realign the direction indicator once every 10-to-15 minutes during routine in-flight checks. Failure to do this is a common source of navigation errors among new pilots.

The directional gyro is one of six critical instruments installed in an aircraft and adopted by both commercial and general aviation.

Read more in The Six Pack: Aircraft Instruments Explained.


Why Directional Gyros Fail

Like all instruments, directional gyros can fail. Gyros often, but not always, give clues of imminent failure. Heading drift in the directional gyro is a pre-indicator of failure that is often only apparent in flight. Abnormal sound or vibration from the instrument can also indicate failure.

The most common cause of directional gyro problems is bearing failure. It can be caused by any of the following factors:

  • Normal wear due to time in service or not using the instrument for long periods of time.
  • Adverse wear due to the instrument ingesting dirty air. This is caused by a missing or defective gyro or vacuum relief valve filter in a vacuum system.
  • Contamination by debris from a failed vacuum pump in a pressure system where the filter was inadequate, or the system was not purged correctly following pump failure.
  • Impact damage due to a hard landing or rough handling of the gyro rotor and gimbal bearings.

Directional Gyro Maintenance Tips

To maintain directional gyro accuracy, the instruments require regular and delicate maintenance. Dropping the gyro, even less than a quarter of an inch, will damage most modern gyros, as the instrument is very sensitive and a small drop is equivalent to applying 1 unit of G-force, or more, to it. A heavy landing can also cause damage, as can rough handling during installation, storage or shipping.

Here are eight key maintenance points for directional gyros:

1.   When you order a gyro, check it as soon as you receive it.

2.   Do not unplug or plug your gyro in with aircraft power on.

3.   Allow the aircraft to come to a complete stop and sit for at least 15 minutes before attempting to remove the gyro. This gives it time to completely spool down and stop spinning. The newer and more efficient the unit, the longer the gyro will spin.

4.   For vacuum gyros, always keep system and gyro filters clean. Don't plumb gyros in series, as this tends to reduce vacuum pressure to the units.

5.   Do not automatically lubricate fittings on vacuum gyros. This tends to reduce friction when tightening and can lead to over torquing. This can also damage the fitting and the back-plate ports.

6.   If gyros are in storage or are not used for periods of two to three months, they need to be powered up and operated for 30 minutes to allow the bearings to be exercised and lubricated.

7.   Anytime a gyro is removed from the aircraft, it should be immediately put into an adequately padded shipping container.

8.   Store the gyro flat on a shelf, resting on padding, in a temperature-controlled environment.


Learn More About Flight Instruments

Be on the lookout for false readings from your directional gyro by performing cross checks of other instruments to see if the readings make sense, and service the gyro regularly. For more information on flight instruments, visit our resource center.

Mid-Continent Instruments and Avionics has been an industry leader in the overhaul, exchange, repair, design and manufacturing of aircraft instruments, avionics and advanced power solutions for more than half of a century. With the skilled expertise to overhaul nearly 6,000 different products, we operate one of the largest instrument overhaul and exchange programs in the world. Ask your local avionics dealer about Mid-Continent Instruments and Avionics. Find an avionics dealer near you.