What is HDG in Aviation? (Heading)

Heading is a fundamental concept in aviation that refers to the direction in which an aircraft is pointing or moving. It plays a crucial role in navigation and is essential for maintaining the desired course. In aviation terminology, heading is commonly abbreviated as HDG. Whether it’s a small propeller-driven aircraft or a large commercial jetliner, understanding and controlling the heading of an aircraft is paramount for safe and efficient flight.

Before diving into further details about heading in aviation, let’s explore the basics of directional terms used in this field. There are three primary terms related to the aircraft’s orientation:

1. Heading

As mentioned earlier, heading refers to the direction an aircraft is pointing or moving. It is measured in degrees clockwise from north. In other words, heading is the angle between the aircraft’s direction and magnetic north. For example, if an aircraft is pointing directly north, its heading would be 360 degrees. If it is pointing east, the heading would be 90 degrees.

In practical terms, a pilot sets the desired heading on the aircraft’s magnetic compass or heading indicator. This allows them to navigate based on the compass heading and make course corrections as needed during the flight. The heading indicator is a crucial instrument on the cockpit panel that provides the pilot with accurate heading information.

It’s worth noting that heading is not always the same as the aircraft’s track. While heading represents the direction in which the aircraft is pointing, track refers to the actual path an aircraft follows over the ground, influenced by various external factors such as wind. Pilots need to consider these factors and make adjustments to maintain their desired track.

To better understand the concept, let’s imagine a scenario where a pilot sets a heading of 270 degrees to fly west. However, due to a crosswind from the north, the aircraft drifts slightly to the south. In this case, the aircraft’s track would be slightly south of the set heading, while its heading would remain unchanged.

The Importance of Heading in Aviation

Heading plays a crucial role in aviation for several reasons:

1. Navigation

Navigating from one point to another accurately and efficiently is vital in aviation. Pilots use selected headings to maintain their desired course and ensure they are on the correct path. By setting and adjusting the heading, pilots can follow designated airways, avoid restricted airspace, and safely navigate through various weather conditions.

Using accurate headings allows pilots to make precise flight plans, calculate fuel consumption, estimate arrival times, and ensure compliance with air traffic control instructions. It is a fundamental aspect of both visual and instrument flight procedures.

For example, during an instrument approach, pilots rely on precise headings to align with the runway’s centerline and execute a safe landing. Deviations from the assigned headings can lead to a loss of situational awareness and compromise flight safety.

2. Flight Control

The ability to control an aircraft’s heading is crucial for maintaining stability and flight control. Pilots use the control surfaces of an aircraft, such as the ailerons and rudder, to adjust the heading as needed.

For example, if an aircraft starts to drift off course and deviate from the desired heading, the pilot can use the rudder to apply corrective action and bring the aircraft back on track. These adjustments help maintain a steady and controlled flight, especially during crosswind conditions or turbulence.

Heading control is particularly important during takeoff and landing, where precise alignment with the runway is necessary. Pilots rely on their heading control skills to counteract any environmental factors that may affect their aircraft’s path, ensuring a safe and smooth landing.

3. Air Traffic Control Communication

Heading also plays a crucial role in air traffic control (ATC) communication. When pilots receive instructions from ATC regarding their heading, it enables them to follow specific vectors and maintain proper separation from other aircraft.

ATC provides headings to pilots for various reasons, such as avoiding traffic conflicts, spacing aircraft on approach or departure, or directing them towards holding patterns. By following the assigned headings, pilots ensure smooth and orderly flow of air traffic, preventing any potential mid-air collisions or safety hazards.

Additionally, headings provided by ATC allow pilots to navigate through controlled airspace and follow predetermined routes, making the entire airspace system more efficient and manageable.

The Instruments for Heading Determination

In aviation, there are various instruments and systems used to determine and indicate an aircraft’s heading:

1. Magnetic Compass

The magnetic compass is a classic instrument used for heading determination. It consists of a circular card with markings indicating different directions, mounted on a pivot to align with the Earth’s magnetic field. By reading the compass’s indicator, pilots can determine their current heading.

However, the magnetic compass is susceptible to errors and deviations caused by magnetic influences within the aircraft, such as electrical systems or ferrous materials. To compensate for these errors, pilots often rely on other heading indicators for more accurate readings.

2. Heading Indicator

The heading indicator, also known as the directional gyro, is a reliable instrument used to indicate an aircraft’s heading. Unlike the magnetic compass, the heading indicator relies on a spinning gyro mechanism that maintains a stable reference direction.

Modern heading indicators can be electrically or vacuum-driven, depending on the aircraft’s system. They provide accurate and responsive heading information, making them invaluable instruments for pilot navigation and control.

It’s important to note that heading indicators require periodic realignment with the magnetic compass to compensate for drift caused by precession, which occurs due to the rotation of the Earth.

3. Electronic Flight Displays

With advancements in technology, electronic flight displays (EFD) have become increasingly common in modern cockpit setups. These displays provide pilots with a wide range of information, including heading indications.

Electronic flight displays are typically equipped with a built-in attitude and heading reference system (AHRS), which uses accelerometers and gyroscopes to measure the aircraft’s orientation and provide reliable heading information.

These displays offer enhanced functionality and allow for flexibility in presenting the heading information. Pilots can customize the display layout and prioritize different flight parameters according to their preferences.

Additionally, electronic flight displays often incorporate synthetic vision systems (SVS) that provide a virtual representation of the external environment, further aiding pilots in maintaining their intended heading and situational awareness.


Heading is a fundamental concept in aviation, essential for navigation, flight control, and air traffic control communication. Pilots rely on accurate heading information to maintain their desired course, make necessary adjustments during flight, and ensure safe operations.

Understanding the instruments used for heading determination, such as the magnetic compass, heading indicator, and electronic flight displays, is crucial for pilots to effectively control and navigate their aircraft.

So whether you’re an aspiring aviator or simply curious about the world of aviation, now you know what heading is and why it holds such significance in the field.

For More: What is OIS in Aviation? (Obstacle Identification Surface)