Sunday, November 18, 2007


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—That altitude read directly from the altimeter (uncorrected) when it is set to the current altimeter setting.
  2. True Altitude—The vertical distance of the airplane 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 airplane 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. This is the altitude above the standard datum plane, which is a theoretical plane where air pressure  (corrected to 15°C) equals 29.92 in. Hg. Pressure altitude is used to compute density altitude, true altitude, true airspeed, and other performance data.
  5. Density Altitude—This altitude is 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 airplane's 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 airplane 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 airplane would have much better performance under these conditions.

Instrument Check—To determine the condition of an altimeter, set the barometric scale to the altimeter setting transmitted by the local automated flight service station (AFSS) or any other reliable source. The altimeter pointers should indicate the surveyed elevation of the airport. If the indication is off more than 75 feet from the surveyed elevation, the instrument should be referred to a certificate instrument repair station for re-calibration.

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