Altitude and Atmospheric Pressure, Flight, and the Human Body

Altitude and Atmospheric Pressure

As altitude increases, atmospheric pressure decreases. On average, with every 1,000 feet of increase in altitude, the atmospheric pressure decreases 1 “Hg. As pressure decreases, the air becomes less dense or thinner. This is the equivalent of being at a higher altitude and is referred to as density altitude. As pressure decreases, density altitude increases and has a pronounced effect on aircraft performance.

Differences in air density caused by changes in temperature result in a change in pressure. This, in turn, creates motion in the atmosphere, both vertically and horizontally, in the form of currents and wind. The atmosphere is almost constantly in motion as it strives to reach equilibrium. These never-ending air movements set up chain reactions that cause a continuing variety in the weather.


Altitude and Flight

Altitude affects every aspect of flight from aircraft performance to human performance. At higher altitudes, with a decreased atmospheric pressure, takeoff and landing distances are increased, while climb rates decrease.

When an aircraft takes off, lift is created by the flow of air around the wings. If the air is thin, more speed is required to obtain enough lift for takeoff; therefore, the ground run is longer. An aircraft that requires 745 feet of ground run at sea level requires more than double that at a pressure altitude of 8,000 feet. [Figure 12-9]. It is also true that at higher altitudes, due to the decreased density of the air, aircraft engines and propellers are less efficient. This leads to reduced rates of climb and a greater ground run for obstacle clearance.

Figure 12-9. Takeoff distances increase with increased altitude.

Figure 12-9. Takeoff distances increase with increased altitude. [click image to enlarge]

Altitude and the Human Body

As discussed earlier, nitrogen and other trace gases make up 79 percent of the atmosphere, while the remaining 21 percent is life sustaining atmospheric oxygen. At sea level, atmospheric pressure is great enough to support normal growth, activity, and life. By 18,000 feet, the partial pressure of oxygen is reduced and adversely affects the normal activities and functions of the human body.

The reactions of the average person become impaired at an altitude of about 10,000 feet, but for some people impairment can occur at an altitude as low as 5,000 feet. The physiological reactions to hypoxia or oxygen deprivation are insidious and affect people in different ways. These symptoms range from mild disorientation to total incapacitation, depending on body tolerance and altitude. Supplemental oxygen or cabin pressurization systems help pilots fly at higher altitudes and overcome the effects of oxygen deprivation.