Back to Basics: Heading, Bearing, Track and Course

Another quick article about some basic concepts about aviation and flight-simming, dedicated to new DCS pilots. The goal, as usual, is clarifying those topics in a simple and concise manner. The other articles of the “Back to Basics” series are available here.

Some concepts in aviation are sometimes used by the enthusiasts pretty much interchangeably (myself included). One of the most common occurrences is mixing and confusing Heading, Bearing, Tracking and Course.

  • Heading: this is the most commonly used (and misused) term to describe where the nose of the aircraft is pointing relative to the North, without considering any other factor. However, in real conditions (e.g. wind) pointing the nose in a certain direction does not necessarily mean that the aircraft is going in that direction.
    Another common issue in DCS is understanding which North is the reference.

    • True Heading: the reference is the True North, the closest point to the axis of rotation of the Planet;
    • Magnetic Heading: the reference is the North of the Earth’s magnetic field. This is where a compass points and the origin of the many discussions about the Magnetic Variation. By the way, it moves..
  • Bearing is the angle between the aircraft and “something” (another aircraft, a geographical feature, etc), using a defined reference:
    • Bearing, uses the North as reference. The sketch below shows an AWACS call for a BRAA 075 (the remaining values are omitted as unnecessary). This means that if our aircraft turns to 075°, it should have the target straight off the nose. In DCS, especially when aircraft from different generations are flying together, you’d better clarify with your controller if the reference is True or Magnetic North. Depending on the map and the year, the difference can be quite wide, which is a problem especially at short range;
    • Relative Bearing, uses the nose of the aircraft as reference. “(Relative) Bearing 090” means that the object is at our 3 o’clock.
      The example below shows the BR reading on the F-14 TID. RBRG 345 means 15° to the left of the nose.
  • Course: this is where we want to go, external factors excluded (wind, declination, etc).
    Reference the example below, if our destination is 090 from the starting position, then that is the Course we should follow to reach it.
  • Track: this is where we are actually going, external factors considered.
    Following the same example, if the destination is 090 but there is a very strong wind coming from the North, then the aircraft may be “pushed” towards the South if the Heading is not corrected.

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