Altitude in itself is a relevant term only when it is specifically stated to which type of altitude a pilot is referring to. 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:
- Indicated altitude—read directly from the altimeter (uncorrected) when it is set to the current altimeter setting.
- 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.
- Absolute altitude—the vertical distance of an aircraft above the terrain, or above ground level (AGL).
- 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.
- 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.
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.