Your Magnetic Compass Remains the ‘Old Reliable’ | Aviation

Of all the gadgetry in airplane cockpits, the magnetic compass is probably the least regarded, least used, and least understood. And yet, it deserves understanding and respect, because it is often the most steadily reliable navigational reference we have.

Often referred to as the “whiskey compass,” “wet compass,” or “standby compass,” the magnetic compass is a required item per FAR 91.205 for flight in nearly every category and class of aircraft. It’s considered to be that important because being able to find your way across the surface of the Earth is crucial to the successful completion of a trip. The magnetic compass is utterly reliable because it has no power source to fail, so long as the Earth’s magnetic field endures. AHRS (attitude/heading reference system) units and spinning iron gyros need electricity or vacuum power, but the magnetic compass just sits there, on its own, wobbling in its case, giving a source of direction after all else fails.

Which is not to say our compass can’t show a false indication, but at least it’s consistently false. One only needs to understand how its error modes work, and it will still provide enough information to guide our path. It is because of these compass errors that more stable devices, such as gyroscopes or electronic instrumentation, were invented. But backing them up is the job of the magnetic…


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