Airspeed Indicator


  • The Airspeed Indicator (ASI) is a Pitot-static instrument used in an aircraft to display the crafts airspeed, typically in knots
  • Airspeed indication is accomplished with the use of a thin, corrugated phosphor bronze diaphragm (aneroid) which measures Dynamic Pressure of the air between the Pitot tube (ram air) [Figure 1] and static port (static pressure) [Figure 2]
    • Dynamic Pressure: Difference between the static (ambient) air pressure and the total pressure caused by the motion of the aircraft through the air
  • The primary use of the airspeed indicator is to provide performance guidance during climb, descent, and landing
Static Port
Figure 2: Static Port
Pitot Tube
Figure 1: Pitot Tube
Instrument Flying Handbook. Figure 3-11, Mechanism of an Airspeed Indicator
Figure 4: Instrument Flying Handbook, Mechanism of an Airspeed Indicator

Pitot Static System
Figure 5: Pitot-Static System

How it Works:

  • Simply stated, ram air is pushed against a diaphragm, which is compared to the static pressure
  • The static pressure is captured through the static port(s) located on the side of the fuselage
    • The location is chosen at a location to most accurately detect prevailing atmospheric pressure (parallel to air stream) and avoid dynamic (ram) air pressure
    • Some aircraft will have more than one port to more accurately measure pressure during slips and skids
  • "Ram air" is the air captured through the opening of the Pitot tube by the passage of the aircraft through the air
    • Ram Air can also be termed as total pressure
    • Some Pitot tubes are electrically heated to prevent clogging with ice
    • Most aircraft have an alternate static source intended for use when the primary static source is blocked and is especially important when in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC)
      • Alternate static sources are typically less accurate
  • Conservation of Energy states that total pressure must remain the same and therefore as the Pitot pressure increases or the static pressure decreases, the diaphragm expands
  • This dimensional change is measured by a rocking shaft and a set of gears that drives a pointer across the instrument dial

Types of Airspeeds:

  • Aircrew are primarily concerned with Indicated Airspeed and True Airspeed in flight with regards to performance

  • Indicated Airspeed (IAS):
    • The IAS is simply airspeed shown by an airspeed indicator
    • The reading has not been corrected for instrument or system errors
    • As height increases, the indicated airspeed falls below the true airspeed
    • IAS will never change despite different atmospherics, so your V-speeds will only vary with weight
  • Calibrated Airspeed (CAS):
    • CAS is indicated airspeed of an aircraft, corrected for position and instrument error
    • As discussed above, any errors that interfere with the system reading total and static pressure (which when subtracted give you dynamic pressure) are corrected here
    • This will give the actual speed in which aircraft is moving through the air
    • Calibrated airspeed is equal to true airspeed in standard atmosphere at sea level (High AoA, minimal error at cruise)
    • The POH/AFM has a chart or graph to correct IAS for these errors and provide the correct CAS for the various flap and landing gear configurations
  • Equivalent Airspeed (EAS):
    • Equivalent airspeed is more designed for engineers and not usually practical for pilots
    • The airspeed corrected for compressibility effects above 180-200 knots and 20,000', which is the airspeed the airplane "feels"
    • As the airspeed and pressure altitude increase, the CAS becomes higher than it should be as air molecules begin to stack up against the aircraft and instruments
    • A correction for compression must be subtracted from the CAS
  • True Airspeed:
    • Because the simple Pitot system does not detect air density changes, it is calibrated to standard sea level pressure and any changes in pressure (or altitude) thereby requires a correction
    • TAS is indicated airspeed corrected for non-standard temperature, with the help of an Outside Air Temperature (OAT) gauge, and altitude
    • These corrections are approximate increasing with altitude at about 2% per 1000' IAS
    • A calculation example can be found on the performance calculations page
    • On higher performance aircraft, a true airspeed indicator may be installed
  • Ground Speed (GS):
    • Measurement of the speed across the ground corrected for airmass movement
    • Ground Speed is a primary concern for performance during cross-country planning

    Airspeed Conversions
    Figure 6: Airspeed Conversions
    Instrument Flying Handbook. Figure 3-14, A maximum allowable airspeed indicator has a movable pointer that indicates the never-exceed speed, which changes with altitude to avoid the onset of transonic shock waves
    Figure 7: Instrument Flying Handbook, A maximum allowable airspeed indicator has a movable pointer that indicates the never-exceed speed, which changes with altitude to avoid the onset of transonic shock waves
    Airspeed Indicator Markings
    Figure 8: Airspeed Indicator Markings
  • Mach #:
    • Mach number is the ratio of the TAS of the aircraft to the speed of sound in the same atmospheric conditions
    • Some older mechanical Machmeters not driven from an air data computer use an altitude aneroid inside the instrument that converts pitot-static pressure into Mach number
    • Modern electronic Machmeters use information from an air data computer system to correct for temperature errors to display true Mach number
  • Maximum Allowable Airspeed:
  • Instrument Flying Handbook. Figure 3-13,  A Machmeter shows the ratio of the speed of sound to the TAS the aircraft is flying
    Figure 9 Instrument Flying Handbook,
    A Machmeter shows the ratio of the speed of sound
    to the TAS the aircraft is flying
    • The maximum airspeed pointer is actuated by an aneroid, or altimeter mechanism, that moves it to a lower value as air density decreases
    • This instrument looks much like a standard air-speed indicator, calibrated in knots, but has an additional pointer colored red, checkered, or striped
    • The maximum airspeed pointer is actuated by an aneroid, or altimeter mechanism, that moves it to a lower value as air density decreases

  • Some aircraft are equipped with true ASIs that have a temperature-compensated aneroid bellows inside the instrument case
  • This bellows modifies the movement of the rocking shaft inside the instrument case so the pointer shows the actual TAS
    • These instruments have the conventional airspeed mechanism, with an added sub-dial visible through cutouts in the regular dial
    • A knob on the instrument allows the pilot to rotate the sub-dial and align an indication of the outside air temperature with the pressure altitude being flown
    • This alignment causes the instrument pointer to indicate the TAS on the sub-dial

Pitot Tube Icing
Figure 10: Pitot Tube Icing

Instrument Errors:

  • The pitot-static systems in modern aircraft are reliable, that we are always taught to "believe our instruments"
    • However, when they do fail, the failure may be so insidious that it goes unnoticed until it’s too late
  • Pitot-static failures typically come in three varieties:
    • Icing over the Pitot or static ports
    • Trapped water in the lines (usually after Maintenance fails to cover the ports during a wash)
    • Compromise of system integrity:
      • Leaks due to holes or loose fittings
      • Kinks in the lines
      • Obstructions/blockages
      • Taped or covered ports
  • Blockages in the system can cause a variety of errors
  • To prevent these errors you must complete a thorough pre-flight
  • Blockages can occur from FOD, striking an object (damaging instruments), insects, trapped moisture, loss of system integrity, icing, etc.
  • Pitot tube blockage (static open):
    • Airspeed indicator indicates zero (gradually decreasing)
  • Pitot tube and drain-hole blockage (static open):
    • Airspeed indicator will freeze and read like an altimeter as the total pressure now remains constant and the static pressure changes with climbs and descents
    • The measure of ram air to static air means as altitude increases and pressure decreases, the instrument will read artificially high as it is comparing it to the same dynamic (ram) pressure
    • Likewise, if pressure increases, such as in a descent, it will read artificially low
    • The aircraft will only read the correct airspeed at the altitude where the blockage occurred, assuming that static pressure is not changing
  • Static blockage:
    • Airspeed indicator will give erroneous readings (slower readings at altitudes above the blockage, faster below)

Airspeed Indicator Failures
Figure 11: Airspeed Indicator Failures

Preflight Check:

  • The airspeed indicator should read straight up and down, unless a significant wind (enough for the aicraft to sense) is being blown into the Pitot tube
  • Airspeed should "come alive" on takeoff roll and as part of your takeoff scan, should be verbalized


  • The airspeed indicator is a required instrument as per Federal Aviation Regulation 91.205 for both day and night visual and instrument flight rules (VFR/IFR)
  • According to FAR 91.411, No person may operate an airplane, or helicopter, in controlled airspace under IFR unless:
    • Within the preceding 24 calendar months, each static pressure system has been tested and inspected and found to comply with appendices E and F of part 43 of this chapter;
    • Except for the use of system drain and alternate static pressure valves, following any opening and closing of the static pressure system, that system has been tested and inspected and found to comply with paragraph (a), appendix E, of part 43 of this chapter; and
    • Following installation or maintenance on the automatic pressure altitude reporting system of the ATC transponder where data correspondence error could be introduced, the integrated system has been tested, inspected, and found to comply with paragraph (c), appendix E, of part 43 of this chapter
  • These tests must be conducted by:
    • The manufacturer of the airplane, or helicopter, on which the tests and inspections are to be performed;
    • A certificated repair station properly equipped to perform those functions and holding:
      • An instrument rating, Class I;
      • A limited instrument rating appropriate to the make and model of appliance to be tested;
      • A limited rating appropriate to the test to be performed;
      • An airframe rating appropriate to the airplane, or helicopter, to be tested; or
    • A certificated mechanic with an airframe rating (static pressure system tests and inspections only)

Inertial Reference Unit (IRU), Inertial Navigation System (INS), and Attitude Heading Reference System (AHRS)

  • IRUs are self-contained systems comprised of gyros and accelerometers that provide aircraft attitude (pitch, roll, and heading), position, and velocity information in response to signals resulting from inertial effects on system components
    • Once aligned with a known position, IRUs continuously calculate position and velocity. IRU position accuracy decays with time. This degradation is known as "drift"
  • INSs combine the components of an IRU with an internal navigation computer
    • By programming a series of waypoints, these systems will navigate along a predetermined track
  • AHRSs are electronic devices that provide attitude information to aircraft systems such as weather radar and autopilot, but do not directly compute position information
  • Aircraft equipped with slaved compass systems may be susceptible to heading errors caused by exposure to magnetic field disturbances (flux fields) found in materials that are commonly located on the surface or buried under taxiways and ramps
    • These materials generate a magnetic flux field that can be sensed by the aircraft’s compass system flux detector or "gate", which can cause the aircraft’s system to align with the material's magnetic field rather than the earth's natural magnetic field
    • The system’s erroneous heading may not self-correct
    • Prior to take off pilots should be aware that a heading misalignment may have occurred during taxi
    • Pilots are encouraged to follow the manufacturer’s or other appropriate procedures to correct possible heading misalignment before take off is commenced


  • Airspeed is generally displayed as a Knot (kt)
    • A knot is the unit for speed measured in Nautical Miles per Hour (NM/Hr)
    • A knot is slower than a Mile per Hour (MPH) and a Kilometer per Hour (KPH)
      • 1 knot = 1.15 MPH = 1.85 KPH

Airspeed Indicator
Figure 3: Airspeed Indicator


  • V-speeds are airspeeds of significance to the pilot during flight
  • These speeds differ between aircraft and are specified in the Pilot Operating Handbook/Pilot Information Manual (POH/PIM) under performance specifications
  • To avoid confusion, this is a list of definitions, should you need them
  • These do not apply to every aircraft you fly
  • The way you should use this information is to reference the POH and reference unknown speeds against what they mean
    • The VS0 - VFE range is indicated by the white band
    • The VS1 - VNO range is indicated by the green band
    • The VNO - VNE range is indicated by the yellow band
  • Do not try to find an unfamiliar speed here and try to find out what it is to your airplane, because it may not exist!
  • Your flight training will go over which speeds apply to you based on your training aircraft

Va Design maneuvering speed Vb Design speed for maximum gust intensity
Vbr Best range speed Vbe Best endurance speed
Vc Design cruise speed Vd Designed dive speed
Vdf/Mdf Demonstrated flight diving speed Vef Speed at which the critical engine is assumed to fail during takeoff
Vf Designed flap speed Vfc/Mfc Maximum speed for stability characteristics
Vfe Maximum flaps extended (top of white arc) Vfto Maximum final takeoff speed
Vh Maximum speed in level flight with maximum continuous power Vle Maximum landing-gear extended speed
Vlo Maximum landing-gear operating speed Vlof Lift-off speed
Vmca Minimum controllable airspeed with the critical engine inoperative (red line) Vmcg Minimum control speed with critical engine out for takeoff run
Vmo/Mmo Maximum operating limit speed VMU Minimum un-stick speed (all engines)
Vmu Minimum un-stick speed (single-engine) Vne Never-exceed speed (red line)
Vno Maximum cruise speed (top of green arc) Vr Rotation speed
Vref Reference speed for landing speed (1.3 Vso) Vs Stalling speed or the minimum steady flight speed at which the airplane is controllable
Vs0 Stalling speed or the minimum steady flight speed in a landing configuration Vs1 Stalling speed or the minimum steady flight speed obtained in a specific configuration (same as Vs)
Vsse Minimum safe single-engine speed Vsr Reference stalling speed
Vsr0 Reference stalling speed in the landing configuration Vsr1 Reference stalling speed in a specific configuration
Vsw Speed at which onset of natural or artificial stall warning occurs Vtoss Take off steady speed for Category A rotor-craft
Vx Best angle-of-climb Vxse Best single-engine angle-of-climb speed
Vy Best rate-of-climb speed Vyse Best single-engine rate-of-climb speed
V1 Maximum speed in the takeoff at which the pilot must take first action to stop the airplane within the accelerate-stop distance. Also means the minimum speed in the takeoff, following a failure of the critical engine at Vef, at which the pilot can continue the takeoff and achieve the required height above the takeoff surface within the takeoff distance V2 Takeoff safety speed
V2min Minimum takeoff safety speed Minimum go: Airspeed required with loss of engine to get safely airborne

  • Multi-engine aircraft display a blue radial line to indicate Vyse
    • This airspeed delivers the best rate of climb if an engine was lost
    • A red line near the lower limit of the airspeed range indicates minimum controllable airspeed (Vmc)
      • This is the lowest speed at which the airplane is controllable when one engine is inoperative and the other engine is operating at full power
Not every airspeed will have an indication marked on the airspeed indicator such as Va, or Vle

Maneuvering Speed:

  • Va is defined as the maximum speed at which full control deflection can be abruptly applied without over stressing the aircraft and depends on aircraft weight
  • As learned from American Airlines 587 (crash in Queens, post 9/11) we learned when you abruptly change the controls multiple times back and forth, you negate Va and you may cause structural failure

  • Formula: