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4 Things Every Pilot Should Know About Airspeed Indicators

Maintaining proper airspeed is a critical part of flight, making the airspeed indicator a vital instrument. In this article, we will go through some information about what an airspeed indicator is, what it shows you, and why it is important.

What Is an Airspeed Indicator and How Does It Work?

On a basic level, this question is easily answered. An airspeed sensor is used to determine the speed at which an aircraft is flying through the air. However, even though the device displays an accurate speed, what an airspeed indicator actually measures is air pressure. The airspeed indicator has two feeds: the static system and the pitot system, wherein the static system takes in air that is “at rest” while the pitot system captures air that is moving. By comparing the force exerted by the air that is at rest to that which is moving, the sensor can determine how fast the aircraft is flying.

What Does an Airspeed Indicator Show You?

The display of an airspeed indicator is relatively straightforward. Surrounding the dial are lines which measure the airspeed in knots. But, there are a lot of different types of airspeed values, so which one does your indicator tell you? Airspeed can be split into five types: indicated, calibrated, equivalent, true, and ground (speed). The indicated speed is what you read on the display of the instrument. This speed has not been adjusted for errors associated with the system. Neither is it adjusted for compression or non-standard temperature/pressure. As the device measures air pressure, the number given is also distinct from ground speed.

How Do You Read an Airspeed Indicator?

There is more to determining airspeed than looking at a single number. Looking at an airspeed indicator, you will notice five colored bands on the outer edge of the barometer. These are called the “V” speeds, and they are all important for safe flight. Detailed meanings behind these can be found in the pilot's operating handbook, but in general, they can be used to determine when it is safe to do certain maneuvers in flight. These maneuvers include lowering the flaps and cruising through the air.

Why Is an Airspeed Indicator Important?

Here are a few reasons why the airspeed indicator is important for a safe flight:

Stall Speed - Airplanes need to keep a certain level of airflow over their wings to generate lift. If the speed of the aircraft drops below a certain level, called the “stall speed,” then the amount of lift generated will be less than the aircraft’s weight. If an aircraft reaches to slow a speed, the aircraft will no longer be flying and will instead start to fall.

Flap and Gear Limitations - Contrast to its smooth hull, the flaps and gear on an airplane protrude out into the airflow and are held by movable hinges and struts. These protruding parts may experience excess stress at too high an airspeed.

Navigation - In order to know where you are from 30,000 feet above any landmarks and mile markers, you need to rely on multiplying your speed by the amount of time you have flown. Knowing the airspeed is crucial for navigation.

Maneuvering - You wouldn’t drive into a turn as fast as you would down a highway. The same is true of flight. Airplanes can fly very fast in a straight line, but once you need to make a turn, you will need to slow down enough to avoid putting stress on the plane.


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