Flight Instruments

Flight Instruments

The seven primary flight instruments you'll find in smaller aircraft include:

  • Airspeed indicator
  • Altimeter
  • Magnetic compass
  • Attitude indicator (optional)
  • Turn coordinator (optional)
  • Heading indicator (optional)
  • Vertical speed indicator (optional)

Which of these should you have in your custom-built plane? The minimum instruments required for VFR (visual flight rules) flight include airspeed indicator, altimeter, and magnetic compass. In addition, you will need some engine instruments including a tachometer, fuel quantity indicator, fuel pressure gauge, oil temperature indicator (for four-stroke engines), and an oil pressure indicator (for four-stroke engines). Remember, that's a minimum. The more you know about your plane's engine and flight conditions the better pilot you can be.

A basic six-instrument panel (excluding the compass and engine instruments) will cost you $1,500 to $2,500. You can go up from there. In addition, there are newer digital electronic panels that start at about $4,000 and go up. Way up! Most builders buy and install a set of the primary six along with engine gauges (oil pressure, temperature, tachometer, etc.) and call it enough. Remember, it is not only the cost that counts; it's also the weight. Add too many gadgets and you could end up with a plane that's fancy but won't be able to carry a passenger!

Fortunately, installation of basic instruments and engine gauges is straightforward, especially with the kits that are constructed from proven designs. The only variation you might have is the placement on the instrument or control panel, though most builders opt for the standard two rows that you see in commercially manufactured aircraft (Cessnas and Pipers for example).

In addition, your plane can have navigation and communication radios. Remember, as a VFR pilot operating in uncontrolled airspace you're not legally required to have nav-com equipment. However, it's in your best interest to at least have a handheld communications radio and a GPS unit. In fact, many pilots who fly classic planes that didn't come with nav-com systems install mountings for portable GPS receivers and handheld com radios. You can buy these two portable units for less than $1,000 — much less than an installed nav-com system — and remove them when you park your plane so you don't "lose" them.

If you plan to fly your experimental aircraft IFR (instrument flight rules), you'll need to install additional instrumentation.