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Flight Planning

Defining Aircraft Speeds

One of the most important factors during navigation is speed. Without it the aircraft would not get anywhere. Aircraft speed measured in relation to the air mass it flies in is called airspeed. The movement over ground is influenced by the wind and called groundspeed and this is what you need for navigation, time and fuel calculations.

Even airspeed is not what it looks like, as aircraft performance is related to changes in the atmosphere (air density) which have their influence on these factors.

Airspeed is measured by the pitot static system, but as air density varies with temperature and pressure influenced by local weather, this has its effects on the aircraft and engine.

Aircraft performance is measured and compared to standard atmospheric (ISA) circumstances, there is a need to convert indicated airspeed to obtain true airspeed (ISA speed) for our calculations.

The pilot can use this converted speed for performance calculations, navigation and fuel consumption. And on this page we explain the different speeds the pilot is dealing with and what factors he or she need to take into account for his navigation plan and take off / landing calculations.

Indicated Air Speed, TAS & GS

Aircraft can only fly by virtue of their speed through the air and the consequent flow of air molecules over the wings (as explained by Bernoulli's principle and Newton's third law). For obvious reasons this speed must be indicated to the pilot and it is measured by a pitot tube in the undisturbed air stream. Pressure in the pitot tube is a combination of air speed (dynamic pressure 1/2 ρ V2) and altitude (static pressure) and the pitot tube is part of the pitot static systemPitot static system
Pitot static system, click to read more

Indicated Airspeed

Indicated Airspeed, IAS

The airspeed indicator can be seen as a pressure chamber divided in two sections by a diaphragm connected to the pointer mechanism. Each of the sections has a air connection, one to the pitot tube and the other to the static port. And as the speed of the aircraft increases, the pitot pressure (dynamic + static) increases and is countered by the static pressure on the other side of the diaphragm. So the result is pitot pressure - static pressure which gives us dynamic pressure and this is indicated airspeed which is shown on the instrument to the left. Detailed information is found on the following page: airspeed indicators.

When the aircraft moves through an airmass, dynamic air pressure is build up in the pitot tube and the diaphragm expands moving a pointer on the instrument. Airspeed is indicated in knots (or nautical mile per hour) but mph and kph can be found on some instruments too. Some even have dual scales, for example mph and knots. The scale usually has colored bands indicating flap speeds (white arc), normal operating (green arc) and caution speeds (yellow arc) and a radial red line indicating never exceed speed (VNE).

Calibrated Airspeed, CAS

Indicated airspeed corrected for position error is called calibrated airspeed, CAS. These errors are caused by the actual installation and position of the pitot tube on the aircraft and this will result in the incorrect sensing of the dynamic and static pressures. This error is usually small, only noticeable with high angles of attack (during level stall exercises for example). The same occurs when the airflow is disturbed by turbulence, and as this is short lived, it is of no factor to the pilot.

Equivalent AirspeedEquivalent Airspeed
Equivalent Airspeed Correction chart

Equivalent Airspeed, EAS

Air is assumed to be incompressible, up to about 200 KIAS and in the lower atmosphere (below 5000ft). Flying faster above that and the altimeter will overread (air is starting to compress) by 1/2 knot. At 10000 ft the error starts at 160 KIAS with a 1/2 knot overread. Airspeed corrected for these compressibility errors is called equivalent airspeed, EAS. For most low level experimental pilots this error is of no concern.

True Airspeed, TAS

Airspeed indicators are calibrated under ISA conditions, and only if these conditions exist in the atmosphere the instrument will indicate true airspeed (which is rare). Some airspeed indicators have an outside air temperature (OAT) set knob. With this subscale the pilot sets OAT against pressure altitude (to obtain that: set the altimeter to 1013 hPa or 29.92 inHg temporarily) so that the airspeed indicator reads indicated airspeed (IAS) and below that true airspeed (TAS) in a movable subscale. These indicators are somewhat more expensive but so very handy. The correction for temperature and pressure is called density error.

True Airspeed Formula

The formula to the left is explained as follows: TAS = IAS √ (ρ0 / ρ), where ρ0 = 1,225 kg/m3 and ρ is the actual air density. This shows the conversion to True Airspeed.

True Airspeed Indicator


The above basically says that IAS corrected for instrument and position errors is CAS. CAS corrected for compressibility errors is EAS and EAS corrected for density errors is TAS.

IAS is important because that is what the pilot is working with and during maneuvering the aerodynamic forces are the result of this indicated airspeed. TAS is important because it gives an idea of the actual speed of the aircraft in a standard atmosphere airmass, and this is what we need to compute our groundspeed.

Navigation Computer

Groundspeed, GS

For navigation, i.e. movement over the ground, we need the speed of the aircraft over the ground. And as True Airspeed (TAS) is the airspeed corrected for all mechanical, position, compressibility and density errors this is the speed we need to use when calculating groundspeed.


When there is no wind at all, GS equals TAS. If there is any wind blowing we need to use the circular side of the E6-B or any other navigational computer to calculate the resulting groundspeed.

Finally, both groundspeed and distance relates into time so that the fuel needed for the trip can be calculated. We can see that it is therefore important that the pilot has a good understanding of these speed concepts.

written by EAI.

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