In March 2019, British Airways passengers found their seats and settled into their flight from London City Airport to Dusseldorf. Imagine their surprise when — during the descent into landing — the craggy hilltops of Edinburgh, Scotland appeared below. Using a selection of devices inside the cockpit, the pilots dutifully followed their flightpath and navigational instruments. It just so happened that they were given the wrong flight plan.
Inside the cockpit, commercial or otherwise, there are various aircraft instruments and dials such as the altimeter, course deviation indicator and attitude indicator; all of which help navigate the plane. In cloudy conditions a pilot has little visibility, meaning they must rely on these instruments to fly the plane from point A to point B.
The altimeter is a device that gauges the level of atmospheric pressure to pinpoint the aircraft's altitude above sea level. With this information the pilot knows exactly how high the aircraft is cruising. The pilot uses the altitude reading to ensure that the aircraft is safely cruising at an altitude with no hazardous objects in the course.
Alongside the altimeter is the Course Deviation Indicator (CDI). This instrument indicates the ‘where’. The CDI is helpful in that it doesn’t only give a location in reference to landmarks, it describes the lateral position of the aircraft in regard to the planned flight path as well. It is a visual indication of the plane’s location and progress along its flight path. As far as the aforementioned British Airways pilot knew, the plane was on track to Dusseldorf.
The attitude indicator is the component that determines how the plane is sitting in the air; it is essentially an artificial image of the horizon. The top half of the display is usually blue, and the bottom half is brown. The fuselage silhouette, the horizontal line, and the carrot are the main indicators. Looking at the attitude indicator, the pilot will expect to see a small semi-circle shape in the middle of the gauge — this is the fuselage silhouette. The pilot will also see the horizontal line that cuts across the gauge. Finally, the pilot will take note of the carrot, a triangle shaped symbol sitting at the twelve o’clock position. If the planes position is balanced, the center of the fuselage silhouette will be sitting in the center of the horizon. It is paramount that the silhouette is within the blue area, while the carrot should be pointing right down the center of the dial. Should the pilot find that the carrot has deviated from the middle, it is an indication that the plane is rolling or banking.
Together with the altimeter and the CDI, the pilot can maneuver the plane in the correct direction at the correct altitude. In addition, the attitude indicator can be used to adjust the plane to keep it level in the air.
A pilot has multiple instruments that help position the aircraft in essentially a blank map. It is not surprising that the British Airways pilots flew to Edinburgh. They were simply following their navigational devices.
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