Gyroscopic Flight Instruments – Principles, Rigidity in Space, Precession

in Flight Instruments

Gyroscopic Flight Instruments

Several flight instruments utilize the properties of a gyroscope for their operation. The most common instruments containing gyroscopes are the turn coordinator, heading indicator, and the attitude indicator. To understand how these instruments operate requires knowledge of the instrument power systems, gyroscopic principles, and the operating principles of each instrument.

Gyroscopic Principles

Any spinning object exhibits gyroscopic properties. A wheel or rotor designed and mounted to utilize these properties is called a gyroscope. Two important design characteristics of an instrument gyro are great weight for its size, or high density, and rotation at high speed with low friction bearings.

There are two general types of mountings; the type used depends upon which property of the gyro is utilized. A freely or universally mounted gyroscope is free to rotate in any direction about its center of gravity. Such a wheel is said to have three planes of freedom. The wheel or rotor is free to rotate in any plane in relation to the base and is balanced so that, with the gyro wheel at rest, it remains in the position in which it is placed. Restricted or semi-rigidly mounted gyroscopes are those mounted so that one of the planes of freedom is held fixed in relation to the base.

There are two fundamental properties of gyroscopic action: rigidity in space and precession.

Rigidity in Space

Rigidity in space refers to the principle that a gyroscope remains in a fixed position in the plane in which it is spinning. An example of rigidity in space is that of a bicycle wheel. As the bicycle wheels increase speed, they become more and more stable in their plane of rotation. This is why a bicycle is very unstable and very maneuverable at low speeds and very stable and less maneuverable at higher speeds.

By mounting this wheel, or gyroscope, on a set of gimbal rings, the gyro is able to rotate freely in any direction. Thus, if the gimbal rings are tilted, twisted, or otherwise moved, the gyro remains in the plane in which it was originally spinning. [Figure 7-18]

Figure 7-18. Regardless of the position of its base, a gyro tends to remain rigid in space, with its axis of rotation pointed in a constant direction.

Figure 7-18. Regardless of the position of its base, a gyro tends to remain rigid in space, with its axis of rotation pointed in a constant direction.


Precession is the tilting or turning of a gyro in response to a deflective force. The reaction to this force does not occur at the point at which it was applied; rather, it occurs at a point that is 90° later in the direction of rotation. This principle allows the gyro to determine a rate of turn by sensing the amount of pressure created by a change in direction. The rate at which the gyro precesses is inversely proportional to the speed of the rotor and proportional to the deflective force.

Using the example of the bicycle, precession acts on the wheels in order to allow the bicycle to turn. While riding at normal speed, it is not necessary to turn the handle bars in the direction of the desired turn. A rider simply leans in the direction that he or she wishes to go. Since the wheels are rotating in a clockwise direction when viewed from the right side of the bicycle, if a rider leans to the left, a force is applied to the top of the wheel to the left. The force actually acts 90° in the direction of rotation, which has the effect of applying a force to the front of the tire, causing the bicycle to move to the left. There is a need to turn the handlebars at low speeds because of the instability of the slowly turning gyros, and also to increase the rate of turn.

Precession can also create some minor errors in some instruments. [Figure 7-19] Precession can cause a freely spinning gyro to become displaced from its intended plane of rotation through bearing friction, etc. Certain instruments may require corrective realignment during flight, such as the heading indicator.

Figure 7-19. Precession of a gyroscope resulting from an applied deflective force.

Figure 7-19. Precession of a gyroscope resulting from an applied deflective force.