Direction vs Orientation

Hello all

My name is Andrei and I am a Russian translator for FlightAware.

I am struggling to differentiate these two terms but I haven’t found any authoritative sources that could explain these. Their descriptions go as follows:

Direction - the direction (e.g., North or 280 deg) of flight
Orientation - A plane’s orientation (e.g., heading or direction)

Do they mean the same? If yes, why are different terms used?

Any help would be highly appreciated. Thanks!

добрый день Andrey;
Direction, as you say, is used to relate the airplane to the compass. East, North, towards Leningrad, from Tashkent etc.
Orientation is usually used to describe the airplane as it relates to the ground or another object. Nose up, nose down, left bank, in front of flight 123 etc.
Use this poorly written sentence as an example.
The flight was traveling from New York to San Fransisco when suddenly it pitched nose down and lost altitude.
The direction is “New York to San Fransisco”, while orientation is “nose down”.
Notice I said usually…It would be ok to say “the helicopter was oriented to the north when it landed.” You wouldn’t normally say that, but is is not incorrect.

I’m sure somebody here is an English Instructor and will explain it better than me.

John in Saudi

Most of the time, the heading the aircrafts nose is pointing doesn’t reflect the heading that the aircraft is traveling. This is due to wind correction. So lets say you have an aircraft that wants to fly at a heading of 90 degrees (east,) and there is fairly strong wind coming from the heading of 360 degrees (north.) The aircraft will have to orient it’s nose to the left lets say 80 degrees to compensate for the wind to maintain it’s heading of 90 degrees over the ground.

So the aircrafts heading would be 90 degrees but orientation would be 80 degrees.

According to


  1. the act or an instance of directing.
  2. the line along which anything lies, faces, moves, etc., with reference to the point or region toward which it is directed: The storm moved in a northerly direction.
  3. the point or region itself: The direction is north.
  4. a position on a line extending from a specific point toward a point of the compass or toward the nadir or the zenith.
  5. a line of thought or action or a tendency or inclination: the direction of contemporary thought.


  1. the act or process of orienting.
  2. the state of being oriented.
  3. an introduction, as to guide one in adjusting to new surroundings, employment, activity, or the like: New employees receive two days of orientation.
  4. Psychology, Psychiatry. the ability to locate oneself in one’s environment with reference to time, place, and people.
  5. one’s position in relation to true north, to points on the compass, or to a specific place or object.

According to the thesaurus at the same site, the two words are synonyms for each other. In practical use, I would say “direction” indicates where you are heading while “orientation” applies to the direction being faced (up, down, east, west, etc), as porterjet says.

Example: The pilot pointed the nose up (i.e. he oriented the aircraft) as he flew east (i.e. the direction he flew).

Thanks a lot to all! Your explanations were very helpful!

So, can I translate ‘orientation’ as ‘actual heading/course’ and ‘direction’ as ‘desired course/heading’?

I also have ‘heading’ and ‘course’ as separate terms. I translated them as ‘magnetic heading’ and ‘true heading’ respectively.

Would this do?

Heading and course are related but different. Think of swimming across a lake. Your course is an imaginary line that takes you to the pretty girl sitting on the other side of the lake. Your heading is where you are pointed in order to follow the course. On a lake course and heading are the same since there is no current. Now imagine her sitting on the other side of a river. If you jumped in and started swimming without correcting for the current you would end up downriver near her rugby playing boyfriend. You must adjust your heading to compensate for the rivers current.
Magnetic and true just have to do with whether you are using the geographic north pole or the magnetic north pole as your reference point.

When learning navigation you start with a chart of the local area. It has lines of latitude and longitude on it. They are based on TRUE north. You draw a line from airport A(you) to airport B(pretty girl) then measure the angle difference between that line and a line of longitude. That gives you a TRUE COURSE from you to true love, but it is not useable in the cockpit without some more calculations. Next you look for the difference between true and magnetic north in the area. It is noted on the chart. You add or subtract that correction and come up with a MAGNETIC COURSE. That is good today, tomorrow or next week but still does not give you an exact number to use on your airplane’s compass. On the day of the flight you get the winds aloft (current in the river) and using your magic computer you get a correction for the wind known as wind correction angle. (this is the “swimming across the river” correction). Now you have a MAGNETIC HEADING which you can actually use in the cockpit.

I still think, in aviation, aircraft orientation relates to the ground or some other object and not to navigation. If, when you arrive over the pretty girls airport, you are flying normally she will think it is nice and be somewhat impressed. But if you do a roll she will be real impressed. (even though other pilots will think you are nuts and just showing off, which is true) You are changing the aircraft’s orientation in relation to her even though your overall navigation goal has not changed.
If you get halfway through the roll, lose control and crash she will go back to watching rugby.

That was nice explanation, Porterjet! Enjoyed reading it:)

The reason why I translated these as ‘magnetic heading’ and ‘true heading’ was because the string had this explanation:

In aeronautical terms, “course” is similar but different from “heading” (course is relative to true north, while heading is relative to magnetic north).

As to the ‘orientation’, its description says

Orientation - A plane’s orientation (e.g., heading or direction)

so it looks like in my context it relates to a direction of an aircraft rather than its position relative to the ground. As the descriptions for ‘direction’ and ‘orientation’ were quite similar I was wondering if these could be translated in the same way. I am still not sure though…

I see where you can be confused. Heading and course can both be true or magnetic. 99% of the time, the heading we use is magnetic but near the north or south poles you have to switch to what is called grid navigation which is based on true north. Course can also be true or magnetic. It is easier to have both referenced to the same thing, typically magnetic since that is what the compass uses.
Orientation can certainly have a direction in the description, you usually see a reference to a compass direction in an accident description for instance. "The aircraft landed on runway 30 but following the tire failure left the runway and came to rest on a northerly heading nearly hitting a parked airplane." Orientation, to my mind, may also include what I described earlier which is a bank bank and/or pitch attitude. Picture describing an aerobatic routine, that would mostly be an orientation picture.