Pitot-Static Flight Instruments – Altimeters (Part Two)

Setting the Altimeter

Most altimeters are equipped with a barometric pressure setting window (or Kollsman window) providing a means to adjust the altimeter. A knob is located at the bottom of the instrument for this adjustment.

To adjust the altimeter for variation in atmospheric pressure, the pressure scale in the altimeter setting window, calibrated in inches of mercury (“Hg) and/or millibars (mb), is adjusted to match the given altimeter setting. Altimeter setting is defined as station pressure reduced to sea level, but an altimeter setting is accurate only in the vicinity of the reporting station. Therefore, the altimeter must be adjusted as the flight progresses from one station to the next. Air traffic control (ATC) will advise when updated altimeter settings are available. If a pilot is not utilizing ATC assistance, local altimeter settings can be obtained by monitoring local automated weather observing system/automated surface observation system (AWOS/ASOS) or automatic terminal information service (ATIS) broadcasts.

 

Many pilots confidently expect the current altimeter setting will compensate for irregularities in atmospheric pressure at all altitudes, but this is not always true. The altimeter setting broadcast by ground stations is the station pressure corrected to mean sea level. It does not account for the irregularities at higher levels, particularly the effect of nonstandard temperature. If each pilot in a given area is using the same altimeter setting, each altimeter should be equally affected by temperature and pressure variation errors, making it possible to maintain the desired vertical separation between aircraft. This does not guarantee vertical separation though. It is still imperative to maintain a regimented visual scan for intruding air traffic.

When flying over high, mountainous terrain, certain atmospheric conditions cause the altimeter to indicate an altitude of 1,000 feet or more higher than the actual altitude. For this reason, a generous margin of altitude should be allowed—not only for possible altimeter error, but also for possible downdrafts that might be associated with high winds.

To illustrate the use of the altimeter setting system, follow a flight from Dallas Love Field, Texas, to Abilene Municipal Airport, Texas, via Mineral Wells. Before taking off from Love Field, the pilot receives a current altimeter setting of 29.85 “Hg from the control tower or ATIS and sets this value in the altimeter setting window. The altimeter indication should then be compared with the known airport elevation of 487 feet. Since most altimeters are not perfectly calibrated, an error may exist.

When over Mineral Wells, assume the pilot receives a current altimeter setting of 29.94 “Hg and sets this in the altimeter window. Before entering the traffic pattern at Abilene Municipal Airport, a new altimeter setting of 29.69 “Hg is received from the Abilene Control Tower and set in the altimeter setting window. If the pilot desires to fly the traffic pattern at approximately 800 feet above the terrain, and the field elevation of Abilene is 1,791 feet, an indicated altitude of 2,600 feet should be maintained (1,791 feet + 800 feet = 2,591 feet, rounded to 2,600 feet).

The importance of properly setting the altimeter cannot be overemphasized. Assume the pilot did not adjust the altimeter at Abilene to the current setting and continued using the Mineral Wells setting of 29.94 “Hg. When entering the Abilene traffic pattern at an indicated altitude of 2,600 feet, the aircraft would be approximately 250 feet below the proper traffic pattern altitude. Upon landing, the altimeter would indicate approximately 250 feet higher than the field elevation.

Mineral Wells altimeter setting 29.94
Abilene altimeter setting 29.69
Difference 0.25

(Since 1 inch of pressure is equal to approximately 1,000 feet of altitude, 0.25 × 1,000 feet = 250 feet.)

When determining whether to add or subtract the amount of altimeter error, remember that when the actual pressure is lower than what is set in the altimeter window, the actual altitude of the aircraft is lower than what is indicated on the altimeter.

 

The following is another method of computing the altitude deviation. Start by subtracting the current altimeter setting from 29.94 “Hg. Always remember to place the original setting as the top number. Then subtract the current altimeter setting.

Mineral Wells altimeter setting 29.94
Abilene altimeter setting 29.69
29.94 – 29.69 = Difference 0.25

(Since 1 inch of pressure is equal to approximately 1,000 feet of altitude, 0.25 × 1,000 feet = 250 feet.) Always subtract the number from the indicated altitude.

2,600 – 250 = 2,350

Now, try a lower pressure setting. Adjust from altimeter setting 29.94 to 30.56 “Hg.

Mineral Wells altimeter setting 29.94
Altimeter setting 30.56
29.94 – 30.56 = Difference –0.62

(Since 1 inch of pressure is equal to approximately 1,000 feet of altitude, 0.62 × 1,000 feet = 620 feet.) Always subtract the number from the indicated altitude.

2,600 – (–620) = 3,220

The pilot will be 620 feet high.

Notice the difference is a negative number. Starting with the current indicated altitude of 2,600 feet, subtracting a negative number is the same as adding the two numbers. By utilizing this method, a pilot will better understand the importance of using the current altimeter setting (miscalculation of where and in what direction an error lies can affect safety; if altitude is lower than indicated altitude, an aircraft could be in danger of colliding with an obstacle).

Altimeter Operation

There are two means by which the altimeter pointers can be moved. The first is a change in air pressure, while the other is an adjustment to the barometric scale. When the aircraft climbs or descends, changing pressure within the altimeter case expands or contracts the aneroid barometer. This movement is transmitted through mechanical linkage to rotate the pointers.

A decrease in pressure causes the altimeter to indicate an increase in altitude, and an increase in pressure causes the altimeter to indicate a decrease in altitude. Accordingly, if the aircraft is sitting on the ground with a pressure level of 29.98 “Hg and the pressure level changes to 29.68 “Hg, the altimeter would show an increase of approximately 300 feet in altitude. This pressure change is most noticeable when the aircraft is left parked over night. As the pressure falls, the altimeter interprets this as a climb. The altimeter indicates an altitude above the actual field elevation. If the barometric pressure setting is reset to the current altimeter setting of 29.68 “Hg, then the field elevation is again indicated on the altimeter.

This pressure change is not as easily noticed in flight since aircraft fly at specific altitudes. The aircraft steadily decreases true altitude while the altimeter is held constant through pilot action as discussed in the previous section.

Knowing the aircraft’s altitude is vitally important to a pilot. The pilot must be sure that the aircraft is flying high enough to clear the highest terrain or obstruction along the intended route. It is especially important to have accurate altitude information when visibility is restricted. To clear obstructions, the pilot must constantly be aware of the altitude of the aircraft and the elevation of the surrounding terrain. To reduce the possibility of a midair collision, it is essential to maintain altitude in accordance with air traffic rules.

 

Types of Altitude

Altitude in itself is a relevant term only when it is specifically stated to which type of altitude a pilot is referring. Normally when the term “altitude” is used, it is referring to altitude above sea level since this is the altitude which is used to depict obstacles and airspace, as well as to separate air traffic.

Altitude is vertical distance above some point or level used as a reference. There are as many kinds of altitude as there are reference levels from which altitude is measured, and each may be used for specific reasons. Pilots are mainly concerned with five types of altitudes:

  1. Indicated altitude—read directly from the altimeter (uncorrected) when it is set to the current altimeter setting.
  2. True altitude—the vertical distance of the aircraft above sea level—the actual altitude. It is often expressed as feet above mean sea level (MSL). Airport, terrain, and obstacle elevations on aeronautical charts are true altitudes.
  3. Absolute altitude—the vertical distance of an aircraft above the terrain, or above ground level (AGL).
  4. Pressure altitude—the altitude indicated when the altimeter setting window (barometric scale) is adjusted to 29.92 “Hg. This is the altitude above the standard datum plane, which is a theoretical plane where air pressure (corrected to 15 °C) equals 29.92 “Hg. Pressure altitude is used to compute density altitude, true altitude, true airspeed (TAS), and other performance data.
  5. Density altitude—pressure altitude corrected for variations from standard temperature. When conditions are standard, pressure altitude and density altitude are the same. If the temperature is above standard, the density altitude is higher than pressure altitude. If the temperature is below standard, the density altitude is lower than pressure altitude. This is an important altitude because it is directly related to the aircraft’s performance.

A pilot must understand how the performance of the aircraft is directly related to the density of the air. The density of the air affects how much power a naturally aspirated engine produces, as well as how efficient the airfoils are. If there are fewer air molecules (lower pressure) to accelerate through the propeller, the acceleration to rotation speed is longer and thus produces a longer takeoff roll, which translates to a decrease in performance.

As an example, consider an airport with a field elevation of 5,048 feet MSL where the standard temperature is 5 °C. Under these conditions, pressure altitude and density altitude are the same—5,048 feet. If the temperature changes to 30 °C, the density altitude increases to 7,855 feet. This means an aircraft would perform on takeoff as though the field elevation were 7,855 feet at standard temperature. Conversely, a temperature of –25 °C would result in a density altitude of 1,232 feet. An aircraft would perform much better under these conditions.

Instrument Check

Prior to each flight, a pilot should examine the altimeter for proper indications in order to verify its validity. To determine the condition of an altimeter, set the barometric scale to the current reported altimeter setting transmitted by the local airport traffic control tower, flight service station (FSS), or any other reliable source, such as ATIS, AWOS, or ASOS. The altimeter pointers should indicate the surveyed field elevation of the airport. If the indication is off more than 75 feet from the surveyed field elevation, the instrument should be referred to a certificated instrument repair station for recalibration.