The pressure altimeter is an aneroid barometer that measures the pressure of the atmosphere at the level where the altimeter is located, and presents an altitude indication in feet. The altimeter uses static pressure as its source of operation. Air is denser at sea level than aloft—as altitude increases, atmospheric pressure decreases. This difference in pressure at various levels causes the altimeter to indicate changes in altitude.
The presentation of altitude varies considerably between different types of altimeters. Some have one pointer while others have two or more. Only the multipointer type is discussed in this handbook. The dial of a typical altimeter is graduated with numerals arranged clockwise from zero to nine. Movement of the aneroid element is transmitted through gears to the three hands that indicate altitude. The shortest hand indicates altitude in tens of thousands of feet, the intermediate hand in thousands of feet, and the longest hand in hundreds of feet.
This indicated altitude is correct, however, only when the sea level barometric pressure is standard (29.92 “Hg), the sea level free air temperature is standard (+15 degrees Celsius (°C) or 59 degrees Fahrenheit (°F)), and the pressure and temperature decrease at a standard rate with an increase in altitude. Adjustments for nonstandard pressures are accomplished by setting the corrected pressure into a barometric scale located on the face of the altimeter. The barometric pressure window is sometimes referred to as the Kollsman window; only after the altimeter is set does it indicate the correct altitude. The word “correct” will need to be better explained when referring to types of altitudes, but is commonly used in this case to denote the approximate altitude above sea level. In other words, the indicated altitude refers to the altitude read off of the altitude which is uncorrected, after the barometric pressure setting is dialed into the Kollsman window. The additional types of altitudes are further explained later.
Learn more about all of your flight instruments with the Instrument Flying Handbook. This is the FAA’s primary pilot resource for instrument flight rules (IFR) covering everything pertinent to operating an aircraft in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) or without reference to outside visuals, relying solely on the information gleaned from the cockpit.