There is often tremendous confusion between bearing, track and similar terms.

On Wikipedia, I saw the following sentence:


In aerial navigation, bearing refers to the actual compass direction of the forward course of the aircraft.


PLEASE NOTE I believe that quote is totally incorrect, do not quote this page!

I refer to the "where the aircraft is going/pointing" as either "track" (the vector of motion over the ground) or "heading" (where the nose is pointing). Whereas, "bearing" means bearing regarding some distant object, (that could be either relative or absolute), and does not relate in any way to "where the aircraft is going/pointing".

{Indeed, you could just be standing somewhere - not moving and not in a vehicle - and very much talk about "bearings" to various landmarks.}

In other words, I have always thought this diagram is correct, and the only usage.

My question for actual pilots, controllers, etc, is this! ...

In fact, am I correct that the quoted sentence above is totally wrong?

Further: am I being "too dogmatic"? Hence specifically: is it the case that, in aviation, perhaps you sometimes do use "bearing" loosely to mean track or heading?

Let me repeat myself: I'm pretty sure I understand what bearing means and what track means. But the wiki quote in question, says the opposite: in fact, is it just plain utterly 100% incorrect, a typo? Or, am I naive... ie, you dudes sometimes do use "bearing" to mean what I call track?

{Just TBTC ... for me "bearing" cannot be used about "us". The sentence "our bearing.." is meaningless. You use bearing about another object. "What's the bearing to blah..." [Of course, that could be implicit, ie, "is our bearing still 123?" meaning, I'm still talking about bearing to Sydney as in the previous sentence...].}

As a curiosity: physics programmers (for games, whatever) constantly use these terms, and of course, we have to use them really precisely like any programming. You can imagine a character or whatever (perhaps a car in GTA!) has all these qualities, they are discussed constantly in relation to physics of the virtual objects in all senses, AI paths of tanks, etc etc. Next time I scream at someone "that's not bearing you idiot, that's track" I want to be on a sound footing!

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I've fixed Wikipedia for you. Well, only the part you refered to $\endgroup$
    – DeltaLima
    Jan 28, 2015 at 20:26
  • $\begingroup$ Dear D-L ... I'm really pleased about that! This site (the aviation one) is really cool, it's one of the best sites in the network. $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Jan 29, 2015 at 2:17

1 Answer 1


Short answers

Here's my answers to your questions, in order:

  1. Yes, you are correct that the quote is wrong.

  2. Yes, you are being too dogmatic.

    2(a). By the way, you are also wrong.

  3. The quote is incorrect. Bearing is properly used the way you describe.

  4. I misuse words all the time, but it's not common for me (or anyone I know) to swap bearing and track.

Longer explanation

The quote isn't correct because magnetic track properly refers to the actual direction that the aircraft is moving, as read off the magnetic compass. However, you say that you refer to:

the "forward course of the aircraft" as either track or heading. (Track, vector over ground, heading, z-axis of vehicle airframe.)

Track and heading are not the same thing, and neither one is necessarily the forward course of the aircraft. Track is the actual vector over the ground. Heading is the direction in which the longitudinal axis of the aircraft is aligned. Course is the correct word for the forward course of the aircraft; the intended (not actual) vector over the ground.

So you've got the definition of bearing right, but you've got track, heading, and course all mixed together.

I've been known to say "bearing" to mean "track", but it's usually only just after I've said "What be our", and just before I'm about to say "ye scurvy dog?"

  • $\begingroup$ (Steve: thank you so much for the answer! BTW my sentence there was slightly unclear, I will fix it!!) $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Jan 28, 2015 at 11:30
  • $\begingroup$ "but it's not common for me (or anyone I know) to swap bearing and track" .. that is really the key info. thanks!! To be absolutely clear, Steve, you agree that the quote (in pink above) is, indeed, utterly, totally incorrect? $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Jan 28, 2015 at 11:35
  • $\begingroup$ @JoeBlow Since it is a single statement, it is either correct or incorrect, asking if it is utterly, totally incorrect is meaningless. The statement you quoted is quite simply incorrect. $\endgroup$
    – Simon
    Jan 28, 2015 at 17:14
  • $\begingroup$ Simon - lol, good point :) $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Jan 29, 2015 at 2:17
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Regarding the axis, there does not seem to be one standard everybody agrees on, but in the ones I've seen the longitudinal axis was called x. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Jun 8, 2016 at 17:40

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