Whiskey compass

Have you ever lost power to all of your electronic instruments?

I think we’ve been over this before but in my job we have become so dependent on the iPad that it is a minor disaster if it fails. How do we navigate? How do we send our daily flight sheets? How do we do a weight and balance? Luckily everybody I fly with comes from a time where you still navigated with paper maps. Although it does take us a minute to find them and remind ourselves how to use all this stone age equipment, haha.

I might be dating myself here but I still remember when one of the first moving map GPS’s came out not all too long ago. It was a huge box in the tailboom and you had to update it with numerous 3 1/2″ floppy disks every other week. Remember the old floppy disks even? It made the Jet Ranger heavy enough that you could only take 3 passengers instead of 4.
Technology is a great thing and saves a lot of time and energy … as long as it works 😉

Where did the term “Whiskey Compass” or “Schnapps Compass” come from anyways? Was it a WW2 thing?

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9 comments on “Whiskey compass
  1. BJ54 says:

    I still have my father’s old hand navigation device from when he flew as a radar intercept officer on F4’s for the Navy.I still do not know exactly how it worked but it took a real grasp of math! Looks kind of like a circular slide ruler. I will take a picture of it when I get the chance. Not used to these cell phone cameras yet; I have used Speed Graphics though.

  2. Instrument Tech says:

    I believe the first mention of the whiskey compass was a nautical one in nature, the idea being that compasses were often filled with some sort of alcohol to provide free movement, but also dampening. Which often meant that they were drained for less noble pursuits than accurate navigation…

    Aircraft compasses through the two World Wars were generally filled with alcohol as well, although not the type one would want to consume, we’re talking about pure alcohol occasionally diluted with some water (assuming the aircraft was not going to be used at high altitudes/low temperatures).

    The practice of filling compasses with alcohol has fallen out of favour, probably due to people continuing to try and drink the fluid. Now, modern compares (although sometimes still referred to as “whiskey compasses”) are filled with compass fluid, better known as kerosene. I highly doubt Chuck’s student would be as interested in having a sip if he knew that.

  3. Robert Starnes says:

    Whiskey (Wet) compass to differentiate it from an Electric or Radio compass. Phraseology started in the 50’s is what I was told by an old timer.

  4. JPKalishek says:

    It was the Alcohol in the level and compasses that gave rise to the terms. My uncle, a carpenter still calls a 4′ level a “Whiskey Stick”. In those cases, cheap whiskey also gave some color so the bubble was easier to see. Pure Alky was used in the compasses, and for the no freezing qualities. Now, it is usually Propylene or Ethylene Glycol. Those are a bit more viscus, and dampen movement better, and in the case of levels, is dyed a bright hi-vis green/yellow.

  5. jan olieslagers says:

    An interesting lecture, @IT, thanks! But I never heard terms like “whiskey compass”, perhaps these are limited to US parlance.

    As for the total electrical power failure, it ought to be a non-event in this 21st century: all essential functions are on smartphones with at least one hour’s battery power. (sarcasm just slightly under the surface).

  6. Bernd says:

    Hah. 3-1/2″ floppy disks? Modern stuff. I remember 5-1/4″; those were really floppy. (I’m slightly too young for 8″ floppy disks, though.)

    Yeah, I learned to fly with paper maps and VOR/DME (and sometime ADF), and the DA20-C1 only had a text-based GPS system without moving map. Showing a digital CDI, simulated DME, course-to-steer, bearing, etc. Worked fine. But these days I mostly use a fancy Android software. Unless I fly local, in which case I know my way around without any navigation aids, but still have the paper charts when needed.

    My flight instructor called it a “Schnapskompass” (with one “p” only in German), my boss sometimes referred to it as “Rye Compass”. I use it to set the DG periodically (although ours apparently has mechanical creep that most of the time completely compensates for precession.)

  7. Rwill says:

    I remember installing a GPS in a guys plane way back when, one of the text only ones.
    As for total power loss, we had a instructor who flew a non-IRF customer in his own C-182 somewhere in bad weather and then flew back alone at night in poor weather conditions. He had everything electrical turned on, and the alternator ran wild, and popped the over-volt protection. Without turning anything off he kept resetting it until he blew up everything electrical in the plane. Literally in the case of the autopilot, which I kept finding little bits of it under the instrument panel. So he had to come in at night in crappy weather with no lights, flaps, or radios because he couldn’t think to shut things off and go on battery power.

  8. sparkplug54 says:

    A-N-D . . This mention ranks seventh of Yahoo’s list of links for “Whiskey Compass.” More than fans read Chicken Wings.

  9. scott says:

    I learned of it as a Spirit level, from my Scots Grandfather, as it was filled with Spirits, and the Baltic fishermen in Washington State/Alaska also refereed to it the same way.

    Didn’t hear Whiskey till I had to deal with ‘true Americans’ and Brits in LA and in N Africa. But at least the Swede’s on that ship knew the proper name too!

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