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Chapter 4, Section II | Airplane Attitude Instrument Flying - Ascent Ground School

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Chapter 4, Section II | Airplane Attitude Instrument Flying

Chapter 4, Section II

Airplane Attitude Instrument Flying

Using an Electronic Flight Display


Attitude instrument flying is defined as the control of an aircraft’s spatial position by using instruments rather than outside visual references. As noted in Section I, today’s aircraft come equipped with analog and/or digital instruments. Section II acquaints the pilot with the use of digital instruments known as an electronic flight display (EFD).

The improvements in avionics coupled with the introduction of EFDs to general aviation aircraft offer today’s pilot an unprecedented array of accurate instrumentation to use in the support of instrument flying.

Figure 4-21. Primary Flight Display (PFD) and Analog Counterparts.

Figure 4-22. Multifunction Display (MFD).

Until recently, most general aviation aircraft were equipped with individual instruments utilized collectively to safely maneuver the aircraft by instrument reference alone. With the release of the electronic flight display system, the conventional instruments have been replaced by multiple liquid crystal display (LCD) screens. The first screen is installed in front of the left seat pilot position and is referred to as the primary flight display (PFD). [Figure 4-21] The second screen is positioned in approximately the center of the instrument panel and is referred to as the multi-function display (MFD). [Figure 4-22] The pilot can use the MFD to display navigation information (moving maps), aircraft systems information (engine monitoring), or should the need arise, a PFD. [Figure 4-23] With just these two screens, aircraft designers have been able to de-clutter instrument panels while increasing safety. This has been accomplished through the utilization of solid-state instruments which have a failure rate far lower than those of conventional analog instrumentation.

Figure 4-23. Reversionary Displays.

However, in the event of electrical failure, the pilot still has emergency instruments as a backup. These instruments either do not require electrical power, or as in the case of many attitude indicators, they are battery equipped. [Figure 4-24]

Figure 4-24. Emergency Back-up of the Airspeed Indicator, Attitude Indicator, and Altitude Indicator.

Pilots flying under visual flight rules (VFR) maneuver their aircraft by reference to the natural horizon, utilizing specific reference points on the aircraft. In order to operate the aircraft in other than VFR weather, with no visual reference to the natural horizon, pilots need to develop additional skills. These skills come from the ability to maneuver the aircraft by reference to flight instruments alone. These flight instruments replicate all the same key elements that a VFR pilot utilizes during a normal flight. The natural horizon is replicated on the attitude indicator by the artificial horizon.

Understanding how each flight instrument operates and what role it plays in controlling the attitude of the aircraft is fundamental in learning attitude instrument flying. When the pilot understands how all the instruments are used in establishing and maintaining a desired aircraft attitude, the pilot is better prepared to control the aircraft should one or more key instruments fail or if the pilot should enter instrument flight conditions.

Learning Methods

There are two basic methods utilized for learning attitude instrument flying. They are “control and performance” and “primary and supporting.” These methods rely on the same flight instruments and require the pilot to make the same adjustments to the flight and power controls to control aircraft attitude. The main difference between the two methods is the importance that is placed on the attitude indicator and the interpretation of the other flight instruments.

Control and Performance Method

Aircraft performance is accomplished by controlling the aircraft attitude and power output. Aircraft attitude is the relationship of its longitudinal and lateral axes to the Earth’s horizon. When flying in instrument flight conditions, the pilot controls the attitude of the aircraft by referencing the flight instruments and manipulating the power output of the engine to achieve the performance desired. This method can be used to achieve a specific performance level enabling a pilot to perform any basic instrument maneuver.

The instrumentation can be broken up into three different categories: control, performance, and navigation.

Control Instruments

The control instruments depict immediate attitude and power changes. The instrument for attitude display is the attitude indicator. Power changes are directly reflected on the manifold pressure gauge and the tachometer. [Figure 4-25] All three of these instruments can reflect small adjustments, allowing for precise control of aircraft attitude.

Figure 4-25. Control Instruments.

In addition, the configuration of the power indicators installed in each aircraft may vary to include the following types of power indicators: tachometers, manifold pressure indicator, engine pressure ratio indicator, fuel flow gauges, etc.

The control instruments do not indicate how fast the aircraft is flying or at what altitude it is flying. In order to determine these variables and others, a pilot needs to refer to the performance instruments.

Performance Instruments

The performance instruments directly reflect the performance the aircraft is achieving. The speed of the aircraft can be referenced on the airspeed indicator. The altitude can be referenced on the altimeter. The aircraft’s climb performance can be determined by referencing the vertical speed indicator (VSI). [Figure 4-26] Other performance instruments available are the heading indicator, angle of attack indicator, and the slip/skid indicator.

Figure 4-26. Performance Instruments.

The performance instruments will most directly reflect a change in acceleration, which is defined as change in velocity or direction. Therefore, these instruments indicate if the aircraft is changing airspeed, altitude, or heading, which are horizontal, vertical, or lateral vectors.

Navigation Instruments

The navigation instruments are comprised of global positioning system (GPS) displays and indicators, very high frequency omnidirectional range/nondirectional radio beacon (VOR/NDB) indicators, moving map displays, localizer, and glide slope (GS) indicators. [Figure 4-27] The instruments indicate the position of the aircraft relative to a selected navigation facility or fix. Navigation instruments allow the pilot to maneuver the aircraft along a predetermined path of ground-based or spaced-based navigation signals without reference to any external visual cues. The navigation instruments can support both lateral and visual inputs.

Figure 4-27. Navigation Instruments.

The Four-Step Process Used to Change Attitude

In order to change the attitude of the aircraft, the pilot must make the proper changes to the pitch, bank, or power settings of the aircraft. Four steps (establish, trim, cross-check, and adjust) have been developed in order to aid in the process.


Any time the attitude of the aircraft requires changing, the pilot must adjust the pitch and/or bank in conjunction with power to establish the desired performance. The changes in pitch and bank require the pilot to reference the attitude indicator in order to make precise changes. Power changes should be verified on the tachometer, manifold pressure gauge, etc. To ease the workload, the pilot should become familiar with the approximate pitch and power changes necessary to establish a specified attitude.


Another important step in attitude instrument flying is trimming the aircraft. Trim is utilized to eliminate the need to apply force to the control yoke in order to maintain the desired attitude. When the aircraft is trimmed appropriately, the pilot is able to relax pressure on the control yoke and momentarily divert attention to another task at hand without deviating from the desired attitude. Trimming the aircraft is very important, and poor trim is one of the most common errors instructors note in instrument students.


Once the initial attitude changes have been made, the pilot should verify the performance of the aircraft. Cross-checking the control and performance instruments requires the pilot to visually scan the instruments as well as interpret the indications. All the instruments must be utilized collectively in order to develop a full understanding of the aircraft attitude. During the cross-check, the pilot needs to determine the magnitude of any deviations and determine how much of a change is required. All changes are then made based on the control instrument indications.


The final step in the process is adjusting for any deviations that have been noted during the cross-check. Adjustments should be made in small increments. The attitude indicator and the power instruments are graduated in small increments to allow for precise changes to be made. The pitch should be made in reference to bar widths on the miniature airplane. The bank angle can be changed in reference to the roll scale and the power can be adjusted in reference to the tachometer, manifold pressure gauge, etc.

By utilizing these four steps, pilots can better manage the attitude of their aircraft. One common error associated with this process is making a larger than necessary change when a deviation is noted. Pilots need to become familiar with the aircraft and learn how great a change in attitude is needed to produce the desired performance.

Applying the Four-Step Process

In attitude instrument flight, the four-step process is used to control pitch attitude, bank attitude, and power application of the aircraft. The EFD displays indications precisely enough that a pilot can apply control more accurately.

Pitch Control

The pitch control is indicated on the attitude indicator which spans the full width of the PFD. Due to the increased size of the display, minute changes in pitch can be made and corrected for. The pitch scale on the attitude indicator is graduated in 5-degree increments which allow the pilot to make correction with precision to approximately 1/2 degree. The miniature airplane utilized to represent the aircraft in conventional attitude indicators is replaced in glass panel displays by a yellow chevron. [Figure 4-28] Representing the nose of the aircraft, the point of the chevron affords the pilot a much more precise indication of the degree of pitch and allows the pilot to make small, precise changes should the desired aircraft performance change. When the desired performance is not being achieved, precise pitch changes should be made by referencing the point of the yellow chevron.

Figure 4-28. The chevron’s relationship to the horizon line indicates the pitch of the aircraft.

Bank Control

Precise bank control can be developed utilizing the roll pointer in conjunction with the roll index displayed on the attitude indicator. The roll index is sectioned by hash marks at 0°, 10°, 20°, 30°, 45°, 60° and the horizon line which depicts 90° of bank. [Figure 4-29] The addition of the 45° hash mark is an improvement over conventional attitude indicators. In addition to the roll index, the instrument pilot utilizes the turn rate indicator to maintain the aircraft in a standard rate turn (3° per second). Most instrument maneuvers can be done comfortably, safely, and efficiently by utilizing a standard rate turn.

Figure 4-29. Bank Control Index Lines.

Power Control

The power instruments indicate how much power is being generated by the engine. They are not affected by turbulence, improper trim, or control pressures. All changes in power should be made with reference to power instruments and cross-checked on performance instruments.

Power control needs to be learned from the beginning of flight training. Attitude instrument flying demands increased precision when it comes to power control. As experience increases, pilots begin to know approximately how much change in throttle position is required to produce the desired change in airspeed. Different aircraft demand differing amounts of throttle change to produce specific performance. It is imperative that the pilot make the specific changes on the power instruments and allow the performance to stabilize. Avoid the tendency to overcontrol.

One common error encountered with glass panel displays is associated with the precision of the digital readouts. This precision causes pilots to focus too much attention on establishing the exact power setting.

Control and power instruments are the foundation for precise attitude instrument flying. The keys to attitude instrument flying are establishing the desired aircraft attitude on the attitude indicator and selecting the desired engine output on the power instruments. Cross-checking is the vital ingredient in maintaining precise attitude instrument flight.

Attitude Instrument Flying—Primary and Supporting Method

The second method for performing attitude instrument flight is a direct extension of the control/power method. By utilizing the primary and supporting flight instruments in conjunction with the control and power instruments, the pilot can precisely maintain aircraft attitude. This method utilizes the same instruments as the control/power method; however, it focuses more on the instruments that depict the most accurate indication for the aspect of the aircraft attitude being controlled. The four key elements (pitch, bank, roll, and trim) are discussed in detail.

Similar to the control/power method, all changes to aircraft attitude need to be made using the attitude indicator and the power instruments (tachometer, manifold pressure gauge, etc.). The following explains how each component of the aircraft attitude is monitored for performance.

Pitch Control

The pitch of the aircraft refers to the angle between the longitudinal axis of the aircraft and the natural horizon. When flying in instrument meteorological conditions, the natural horizon is unavailable for reference, and an artificial horizon is utilized in its place. [Figure 4-30] The only instrument capable of depicting the aircraft attitude is the attitude indicator displayed on the PFD. The attitude and heading reference system (AHRS) is the engine that drives the attitude display. The AHRS unit is capable of precisely tracking minute changes in the pitch, bank, and yaw axes, thereby making the PFD very accurate and reliable. The AHRS unit determines the angle between the aircraft’s longitudinal axis and the horizon line on initialization. There is no need or means for the pilot to adjust the position of the yellow chevron which represents the nose of the aircraft.

Figure 4-30. Pitch of the Aircraft. 

Straight-and-Level Flight

In straight-and-level flight, the pilot maintains a constant altitude, airspeed and, for the most part, heading for extended periods of time. To achieve this, three primary instruments need to be referenced in order to maintain these three variables.

Primary Pitch

When the pilot is maintaining a constant altitude, the primary instrument for pitch is the altimeter. As long as the aircraft maintains a constant airspeed and pitch attitude, the altitude should remain constant.

Two factors that cause the altitude to deviate are turbulence and momentary distractions. When a deviation occurs, a change in the pitch needs to be made on the attitude indicator. Small deviations require small corrections while large deviations require larger corrections. Pilots should avoid making large corrections that result in rapid attitude changes, for this may lead to spatial disorientation. Smooth, timely corrections should be made to bring the aircraft back to the desired attitude.

Pay close attention to indications on the PFD. An increase in pitch of 2.5° produces a climb rate of 450 feet per minute (fpm). Small deviations do not require large attitude changes.

A rule of thumb for correcting altitude deviations is to establish a change rate of twice the altitude deviation, not to exceed 500 fpm. For example, if the aircraft is off altitude by 40 feet, 2 x 40 = 80 feet, so a descent of approximately 100 fpm allows the aircraft to return to the desired altitude in a controlled, timely fashion.

In addition to the primary instrument, there are also supporting instruments that assist the pilot in cross-checking the pitch attitude. The supporting instruments indicate trend, but they do not indicate precise attitude indications. Three instruments (vertical speed, airspeed, and altitude trend tape) indicate when the pitch attitude has changed and that the altitude is changing. [Figure 4-31] When the altitude is constant, the VSI and altitude trend tape are not shown on the PFD. When these two trend indicators are displayed, the pilot is made aware that the pitch attitude of the aircraft has changed and may need adjustment.

Figure 4-31. Supporting Instruments.

The instrument cross-check necessitates utilizing these supporting instruments to better manage altitude control. The VSI and trend tape provide the pilot with information regarding the direction and rate of altitude deviations. The pilot is thus able to make correction to the pitch attitude before a large deviation in altitude occurs. The airspeed indicator depicts an increase if the pitch attitude is lowered. Conversely, when the pitch attitude increases, the pilot should note a decrease in the airspeed.

Primary Bank

When flying in instrument meteorological conditions, pilots maintain preplanned or assigned headings. With this in mind, the primary instrument for bank angle is the heading indicator. Heading changes are displayed instantaneously. The heading indicator is the only instrument that displays the current magnetic heading, provided that it is matched to the magnetic compass with all deviation adjustments accounted for. [Figure 4-32]

Figure 4-32. Primary Bank.

There are supporting instruments associated with bank as well. The turn rate trend indicator shows the pilot when the aircraft is changing heading. The magnetic compass is also useful for maintaining a heading; however, it is influenced by several errors in various phases of flight.

Primary Yaw

The slip/skid indicator is the primary instrument for yaw. It is the only instrument that can indicate if the aircraft is moving through the air with the longitudinal axis of the aircraft aligned with the relative wind.

Primary Power

The primary power instrument for straight-and-level flight is the airspeed indicator. The main focus of power is to maintain a desired airspeed during level flight. No other instrument delivers instantaneous indication.

Learning the primary and supporting instruments for each variable is the key to successfully mastering attitude instrument flying. At no point does the primary and supporting method devalue the importance of the attitude indicator or the power instruments. All instruments (control, performance, primary, and supporting) must be utilized collectively.

Fundamental Skills of Attitude Instrument Flying

When first learning attitude instrument flying, it is very important that two major skills be mastered. Instrument cross-check and instrument interpretation comprise the foundation for safely maneuvering the aircraft by reference to instruments alone. Without mastering both skills, the pilot will not be able to maintain precise control of aircraft attitude.

Instrument Cross-Check

The first fundamental skill is cross-checking (also call “scanning”). Cross-checking is the continuous observation of the indications on the control and performance instruments. It is imperative that the new instrument pilot learn to observe and interpret the various indications in order to control the attitude and performance of the aircraft. Due to the configuration of some glass panel displays such as the Garmin G1000, one or more of the performance instruments may be located on an MFD installed to the right of the pilot’s direct forward line of sight. [Figure 4-33]

Figure 4-33. Note that the altitude and vertical speed tapes are slightly to the right of the pilot’s direct forward line of sight.

How a pilot gathers the necessary information to control the aircraft varies by individual pilot. No specific method of cross-checking (scanning) is recommended; the pilot must learn to determine which instruments give the most pertinent information for any particular phase of a maneuver. With practice, the pilot is able to observe the primary instruments quickly and cross-check with the supporting instruments in order to maintain the desired attitude. At no time during instrument flying should the pilot stop cross-checking the instrumentation.

Scanning Techniques

Since most of the primary and supporting aircraft attitude information is displayed on the PFD, standard scanning techniques can be utilized. It is important to remember to include the stand-by flight instruments as well as the engine indications in the scan. Due to the size of the attitude instrument display, scanning techniques have been simplified because the attitude indicator is never out of peripheral view.

Selected Radial Cross-Check

The radial scan is designed so that your eyes remain on the attitude indicator 80–90 percent of the time. The remainder of the time is spent transitioning from the attitude indicator to the various other flight instruments. [Figure 4-34]

Figure 4-34. Selected Radial Cross-Check.

The radial scan pattern works well for scanning the PFD. The close proximity of the instrument tape displays necessitates very little eye movement in order to focus in on the desired instrument. While the eyes move in any direction, the extended artificial horizon line allows the pilot to keep the pitch attitude in his or her peripheral vision. This extended horizon line greatly reduces the tendency to fixate on one instrument and completely ignore all others. Because of the size of the attitude display, some portion of the attitude indicator is always visible while viewing another instrument display on the PFD.

Starting the Scan

Start the scan in the center of the PFD on the yellow chevron. Note the pitch attitude and then transition the eyes upward to the slip/skid indicator. Ensure that the aircraft is coordinated by aligning the split triangle symbol. The top of the split triangle is referred to as the roll pointer. The lower portion of the split triangle is the slip/skid indicator. If the lower portion of the triangle is off to one side, step on the rudder pedal on the same side to offset it. [Figure 4-35 NOTE: The aircraft is not changing heading. There is no trend vector on the turn rate indicator.]

Figure 4-35. Roll Pointer and Slip/Skid Indicator.

While scanning that region, check the roll pointer and assure that the desired degree of roll is being indicated on the bank scale. The roll index and the bank scale remain stationary at the top of the attitude indicator. The index is marked with angles of 10°, 20°, 30°, 45° and 60° in both directions. If the desired bank angle is not indicated, make the appropriate aileron corrections. Verify the bank angle is correct and continue scanning back to the yellow chevron.

Scan left to the airspeed tape and verify that the airspeed is as desired, then return back to the center of the display. Scan right to the altimeter tape. Verify that the desired altitude is being maintained. If it is not, make the appropriate pitch change and verify the result. Once the desired altitude has been verified, return to the center of the display. Transition down to the heading indicator to verify the desired heading. When the heading has been confirmed, scan to the center of the display.

It is also important to include the engine indications in the scan. Individualized scan methods may require adjustment if engine indications are presented on a separate MFD. A modified radial scan can be performed to incorporate these instruments into the scan pattern. Another critical component to include in the scan is the moving map display located on the MFD. To aid in situational awareness and facilitate a more centralized scan, a smaller inset map can be displayed in the lower left corner of the PFD screen.

Trend Indicators

One improvement the glass panel displays brought to the general aviation industry is the trend vector. Trend vectors are magenta lines that appear on the airspeed and altitude tapes as well as on the turn rate indicator. These magenta lines indicate what the associated airspeed, altitude, or heading will be in 6 seconds [Figure 4-36] if the current rate is maintained. The trend vector is not displayed if there is no change to the associated tape and the value remains constant [Figure 4-37] or if there is a failure in some portion of the system that would preclude the vector from being determined.

Figure 4-36. Airspeed Trend Indicators.

Figure 4-37. Airspeed Indicators With No Trend Present.

Trend vectors are a very good source of information for the new instrument flight rules (IFR) pilot. Pilots who utilize good scanning techniques can pick up subtle deviations from desired parameters and make small correction to the desired attitude. As soon as a trend is indicated on the PFD, a conscientious pilot can adjust to regain the desired attitude. [Figure 4-38]

Figure 4-38. Altimeter Trend Indicators.

Another advancement in attitude instrument flying is the turn rate trend indicator. As in the cases of airspeed, altitude, and vertical speed trend indicators, the turn rate trend indicator depicts what the aircraft’s heading will be in 6 seconds. While examining the top of the heading indicator, notice two white lines on the exterior of the compass rose. [Figure 4-39] These two tick marks located on both sides of the top of the heading indicator show half-standard rate turns as well as standard rate turns.

Figure 4-39. Horizontal Situation Indicator (HSI) Trend Indicator Elongates Proportionally With the Rate of Turn.

In Figure 4-40, when the aircraft begins its turn to the left, the magenta trend indicator elongates proportionally with the rate of turn. To initiate a half-standard rate turn, position the indicator on the first tick mark. A standard rate turn would be indicated by the trend indicator extending to the second tick mark. A turn rate in excess of standard rate would be indicated by the trend indicator extending past the second tick mark. This trend indicator shows what the aircraft’s heading will be in 6 seconds, but is limited to indicate no more than 24° in front of the aircraft, or 4° per second. When the aircraft exceeds a turning rate of 25° in 6 seconds, the trend indicator has an arrowhead attached to it.

Figure 4-40. HSI Indicator (enlargement).

Trend indicators are very useful when leveling off at a specific altitude, when rolling out on a heading, or when stabilizing airspeed. One method of determining when to start to level off from a climb or descent is to start leveling at 10 percent of the vertical speed rate prior to the desired altitude.

As the aircraft approaches the desired altitude, adjust the pitch attitude to keep the trend indicator aligned with the target altitude. As the target approaches, the trend indicator gradually shrinks until altitude stabilizes. Trend indicators should be used as a supplement, not as a primary means of determining pitch change.

Common Errors


Fixation, or staring at one instrument, is a common error observed in pilots first learning to utilize trend indicators. The pilot may initially fixate on the trend indicator and make adjustments with reference to that alone. Trend indicators are not the only tools to aid the pilot in maintaining the desired power or attitude; they should be used in conjunction with the primary and supporting instruments in order to better manage the flight. With the introduction of airspeed tapes, the pilot can monitor airspeed to within one knot. Fixation can lead to attempting to keep the airspeed to an unnecessarily tight tolerance. There is no need to hold airspeed to within one knot; the Instrument Rating Practical Test Standards (PTS) allows greater latitude.


Another common error associated with attitude instrument flying is omission of an instrument from the cross-check. Due to the high reliability of the PFD and associated components, pilots tend to omit the stand-by instruments as well as the magnetic compass from their scans. An additional reason for the omission is the position of the stand-by instruments. Pilots should continue to monitor the stand-by instruments in order to detect failures within those systems. One of the most commonly omitted instruments from the scan is the slip/skid indicator.


In initial training, placing emphasis on a single instrument is very common and can become a habit if not corrected. When the importance of a single instrument is elevated above another, the pilot begins to rely solely on that instrument for guidance. When rolling out of a 180° turn, the attitude indicator, heading indicator, slip/skid indicator, and altimeter need to be referenced. If a pilot omits the slip/skid indicator, coordination is sacrificed.