Los Angeles KLAX and Casablanca GMMN (Morocco) are at the same latitude. If the aircraft follows a magnetic 090° heading, the initial true heading will be 102° due to the declination.

enter image description here (source University of Alabama.)

That means the path will start slightly southerly.
What will be the path followed until reaching a continent on the other side of the Atlantic?


2 Answers 2


If an aircraft is following a magnetic course changes in magnetic declination as the aircraft moves along its route of flight will affect the true course, and on a long flight such as the hypothetical trip posed here we need to take that into account.

Magnetic declination is empirical data, i.e. there are tables of it, and while formulas exist to approximate it you would normally use the reference tables. There are several sources of data for the worldwide declination of the magnetic field, for example here. Following the link "Magnetic Model maps and grids" I took D_map_mf_2010.zip which contains a simple lat/lon/declination table (0.5° steps) and wrote a small simulation which moves the aircraft 10 km along the heading, calculates & records the new angular coordinates, moves again and so on. The result is this figure:

World declination chart, with course Zoomed in on course & original intended destination

The green arrows show the direction of north as displayed by a compass, the blue shows the direction of east.
The black line was generated by the simulation shows the true course of an aircraft with a constant magnetic heading of 90°. While it will fly over north Florida, it deviates markedly to the north over the ocean and just touches the north coast of Spain.

Note that this only accounts for the magnetic declination, since your question assumed no wind.
During a real flight the aircraft may experience unknown crosswinds, so the actual position has to be determined from time to time, and a look into the table / map shows the correct heading at the current position leading to your destination. (If the aircraft only has this map, a compass and a sextant aboard.)

So, if you have this data, you can correct the compass headings such that you fly the true course you want. However, I don't know how it's actually done in aviation.


Here is the code. It is written in python and gnuplot, and you will not need any programming skills to use it.

Have fun!

To answer one question from the comments:

If you carried on around the world, would you return to your starting point? I'm guessing yes as we would be following a contour of equal magnetic potential?

From the physics side, magnetic fields are not conservative and so do not have a potential. However, I think it's clear what you mean.

As long as the heading is +90° or -90°, you will end up where you started. The following figure again shows a travel from KLAX heading 90°, but with a total lengh of 40mio km (i.e. 1000 times the circumfence of the earth and a little more turns for the track as it's not at the equator) As you can see, there is just a single black track, no deviation.

And if you want to fly to Casablanca, you will need a constant heading of 93,6°. And if you don't land there and have enough fuel, strange things happen:

enter image description here

I would also like to emphasize Bob Jarvis' comment, about how it's done in the real world:

Long distance journeys, whether by air or sea, will generally use a "great circle" where the heading steered is not constant. In practice the continuously changing great circle course is broken up in to a series of segments of constant heading. Reference here.

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    $\begingroup$ I simulated it. Looks like frog's legs instead of couscous as dinner after arrival. $\endgroup$
    – sweber
    Commented Mar 14, 2015 at 16:44
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    $\begingroup$ Love that you programmed the solution. This is great. $\endgroup$
    – egid
    Commented Mar 14, 2015 at 22:34
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    $\begingroup$ Awesome answer! I made a few changes to line it up with the current state of the question, if I messed anything up let me know. $\endgroup$
    – voretaq7
    Commented Mar 14, 2015 at 23:58
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for your comments. The "tool" is just a python script written by myself out of the box. The graphs are done using gnuplot. The continents also just come from a data file from the web. If you want, I can upload a software bundle, so you can play with it. But I'll do that tomorrow, as it's 2pm here. $\endgroup$
    – sweber
    Commented Mar 15, 2015 at 0:55
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    $\begingroup$ If you carried on around the world, would you return to your starting point? I'm guessing yes as we would be following a contour of equal magnetic potential? $\endgroup$
    – IanF1
    Commented Mar 15, 2015 at 10:14

Finally I'm adding this update to the answer sweber provided years ago, using current magnetic declination at an altitude of 15,000 ft. It shows a larger deviation. It's not the magnetic declination has changed (at latitude 40°N, the secular variation range is -0.11° to +0.18°), but altitude is possibly a significant factor.

I used a 5°x5° grid of NOAA estimated magnetic field, and a bivariate spline interpolator. The map is from Natural Earth, and the projection used is WGS84.

enter image description here

Arrows depict the local 90°M heading. An aircraft flying this constant heading actually reaches the coast of France near Bordeaux, at the latitude of 45° and 700NM North of it's departure airport.

In order to reach Casablanca, the heading must be 95.8°M:

enter image description here

Anyway such complexity linked to a non-ideally aligned geomagnetism is almost a thing of the past, the time of magnetic heading in aviation is running out. Modern navigation doesn't need it anymore, the regulation might change in the coming years and switch to true headings as the standard (more).


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