Measuring the airspeed of an aircraft during flight is critical to both the safe operation of the vehicle, as well as for the wellbeing of the passengers and crew. Flying too slow can often cause an airplane to stall, especially at higher angles of critical attack. Flying too fast can also prove detrimental as it may compromise the structure of an aircraft. Whether an aircraft’s cockpit utilizes a steam gauge or is comprised of modern glass instruments, all planes utilize a pitot tube in order to measure airspeed.
Pitot tubes are featured in a pitot-static system, in which various pressure sensitive instruments work together to produce an aircraft’s airspeed, Mach number, altitude, and altitude trend. The pitot tube is a dual holed measurement device that may either protrude from the edge of a wing, or be installed into the fuselage in order to remain in airstream and measure stagnation pressure. The other hole in the tube is used to measure static pressure which, together with the stagnation pressure, is used to measure the airspeed of an aircraft. Within the airspeed indicator of the aircraft, there is a diaphragm encased within a container in which static and stagnation pressure are on each side. With mechanical levers, the dynamic pressure is found through calculating the difference between the static and stagnation pressures. With the dynamic pressure reading, airspeed is calculated.
Keeping the pitot tube working optimally is paramount to receiving accurate readings. If obstructions, such as ice, form in the tubing, pressure readings can either be miscalculated, or not calculated at all. When the pitot tube is blocked, the airspeed indicator can still function as an altimeter without the stagnation pressure, though without the speed readings, flying remains hazardous. Luckily, some aircraft are equipped with solutions such as heating elements that can keep ice from forming in the first place, and they are activated once the aircraft begins flight in colder weather.
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