How to Calculate the Heading of a Flight Path

Written by robert rubenstein
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The flight path of an aircraft is the direction of flight that is travelled relative to the ground. The heading is the direction displayed on the compass. To determine the heading that will allow the aircraft to fly on the intended flight path, you must compensate for the wind and the difference between true and magnetic north. An aircraft flying a heading different from the flight path resembles a car in a skid. The front is pointed in a direction different from the direction of travel.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Straightedge
  • Pencil
  • Aviation plotter
  • E6B flight computer
  • Sectional chart
  • Internet access

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  1. 1

    Draw your course on the map. Use a pencil and the straightedge of the plotter to draw the flight path.

  2. 2

    Align the plotter. Place the centre of the plotter over a point where the flight path crosses a line of longitude.

  3. 3

    Read the true course. With a fixed plotter, the straightedge will be aligned with the course line, and the true course will be the number over the line of longitude.

  1. 1

    Determine the wind speed and direction. There are a variety of Internet sources, including, which is operated by the National Weather Service.

  2. 2

    Determine the wind-correction angle. Use an E6B flight computer of your choice. There are a variety of mechanical and electronic flight computers, each of which have different instructions. The one thing in common is the required data. You need to input the wind speed, wind direction, the true course and the airspeed planned for the flight. The computer will determine how many degrees left or right the aircraft needs to turn from the true course to maintain a straight line.

  3. 3

    Determine the true heading. If the wind-correction angle is to the left, subtract the angle of degrees from the true course; if it’s to the right, add the angle. For example, if the true course is 270 degrees (west) and the correction is 10 degrees to the left, the true heading will be 260 degrees (southwest).

  4. 4

    Determine the magnetic heading. This is the actual heading that will be displayed on the compass. Find the isogonic line printed on the sectional chart along your flight path. If the number is a degree to the west, add it to the true heading. If it’s to the east, subtract it from the true heading. A true heading of 260 degrees with a 3-degree west line will be a 263-degree magnetic course.

Tips and warnings

  • Use checkpoints on the map at least every 20 to 40 minutes to determine if your heading needs to be adjusted to remain on the desired flight path.
  • Be certain you read the instructions on an flight computer and plotter you intend to use for calculating headings.

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