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Altimeters (Part Three) Non Standard Pressure and Temperature

in Flight Instruments

It is easy to maintain a consistent height above ground if the barometric pressure and temperature remain constant, but this is rarely the case. The pressure temperature can change between takeoff and landing even on a local flight. If these changes are not taken into consideration, flight becomes dangerous.

If altimeters could not be adjusted for nonstandard pressure, a hazardous situation could occur. For example, if an aircraft is flown from a high pressure area to a low pressure area without adjusting the altimeter, a constant altitude will be displayed, but the actual height of the aircraft above the ground would be lower then the indicated altitude. There is an old aviation axiom: “GOING FROM A HIGH TO A LOW, LOOK OUT BELOW.” Conversely, if an aircraft is flown from a low pressure area to a high pressure area without an adjustment of the altimeter, the actual altitude of the aircraft is higher than the indicated altitude. Once in flight, it is important to frequently obtain current altimeter settings en route to ensure terrain and obstruction clearance.

Many altimeters do not have an accurate means of being adjusted for barometric pressures in excess of 31.00 inches of mercury (“Hg). When the altimeter cannot be set to the higher pressure setting, the aircraft actual altitude will be higher than the altimeter indicates. When low barometric pressure conditions occur (below 28.00), flight operations by aircraft unable to set the actual altimeter setting are not recommended.

Adjustments to compensate for nonstandard pressure do not compensate for nonstandard temperature. Since cold air is denser than warm air, when operating in temperatures that are colder than standard, the altitude is lower than the altimeter indication. [Figure 7-3] It is the magnitude of this “difference” that determines the magnitude of the error. It is the difference due to colder temperatures that concerns the pilot. When flying into a cooler air mass while maintaining a constant indicated altitude, true altitude is lower. If terrain or obstacle clearance is a factor in selecting a cruising altitude, particularly in mountainous terrain, remember to anticipate that a colder-than-standard temperature places the aircraft lower than the altimeter indicates. Therefore, a higher indicated altitude may be required to provide adequate terrain clearance. A variation of the memory aid used for pressure can be employed: “FROM HOT TO COLD, LOOK OUT BELOW.” When the air is warmer than standard, the aircraft is higher than the altimeter indicates. Altitude corrections for temperature can be computed on the navigation computer.

Effects of nonstandard temperature on an altimeter

Figure 7-3. Effects of nonstandard temperature on an altimeter. Click to Enlarge

Extremely cold temperatures will also affect altimeter indications. Figure 7-4, which was derived from ICAO formulas, indicates how much error can exist when the temperature is extremely cold.

Altimeter settings

Figure 7-4. Look at the chart using a temperature of –10 °C and the aircraft altitude is 1,000 feet above the airport elevation. The chart shows that the reported current altimeter setting may place the aircraft as much as 100 feet below the altitude indicated by the altimeter.

1 Joe Harnish April 8, 2013 at 9:00 pm

In an aircraft that is power limited, when climbing to flight level 370, with
temperatures averaging ISA plus 15, aircraft performance is significantly
degraded. How much of this perceived degradation of performance is due to warmer than standard temperatures and how much is the result of
actually climbing to a true altitude that is significantly higher than 37,000 feet?

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