Approaching an unfamiliar airport VFR can present a challenge even in CAVU conditions, particularly if you don’t have a glass panel in your cockpit. But your heading indicator can help you quickly visualize the orientation of the runway, which makes it easier to find the airport and figure out the best way to enter the pattern. As long as your HI is properly adjusted, this technique helps prevent you from lining up for the wrong runway if there is more than one, which technically there always is – one in each direction.
Look at your heading indicator and imagine the runway extending across the instrument from each cardinal runway heading. When you look outside, you will see the runway in the same orientation as it is on the instrument.
In the attached image, we’re flying an approximate heading of north from a position south west of Burbank Airport, approaching Runway 8. The outside picture of the runway aligns with the imaginary picture on the heading indicator (the imaginary runway extends from 8 to 26 on the instrument). The airplane is set up on an extended base entry for Runway 8, which is what the controller assigned.
If you were making a similar VFR approach into an uncontrolled runway with a standard left traffic pattern, you would see by looking at the imaginary runway on the HI that you would need to overfly the airport pattern in order to enter on the left downwind for Runway 8.
Using this technique can also keep you out of trouble if you align yourself with the wrong runway, long before you’re able to read the numbers on the tarmac. If you’re flying on final and notice that your heading indicator reads a heading that is not the desired runway’s heading, you’re either approaching the wrong runway or your heading indicator has not been adjusted for the magnetic heading. Go around, get oriented, set up for the intended runway and try again.