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 1] All three of these instruments can reflect small adjustments, allowing for precise control of aircraft attitude.

Airplane Attitude Instrument Flying Using an Electronic Flight Display
Figure 1. 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 2] Other performance instruments available are the heading indicator, pitch attitude indicator, and the slip/skid indicator.

Airplane Attitude Instrument Flying Using an Electronic Flight Display
Figure 2. Performance instruments

The performance instruments 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 glideslope (GS) indicators. [Figure 3] 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.

Airplane Attitude Instrument Flying Using an Electronic Flight Display
Figure 3. 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. The pitch scale on the attitude indicator is graduated in 5-degree increments that allow the pilot to make corrections 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] 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.

Airplane Attitude Instrument Flying Using an Electronic Flight Display
Figure 4. 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 5] 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.

Airplane Attitude Instrument Flying Using an Electronic Flight Display
Figure 5. Bank indicator 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 (IMC), the natural horizon is unavailable for reference and an artificial horizon is utilized in its place. [Figure 6] 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.

Airplane Attitude Instrument Flying Using an Electronic Flight Display
Figure 6. 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, the three primary instruments that need to be referenced in order to maintain these three variables are the altitude, airspeed, and heading indicators.

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 × 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 7] 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. Notice in Figure 7 that the aircraft is descending at a rate of 500 fpm.

Airplane Attitude Instrument Flying Using an Electronic Flight Display
Figure 7. 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 corrections 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 IMC, 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 8]

Airplane Attitude Instrument Flying Using an Electronic Flight Display
Figure 8. 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.