The more appropriate term for correlating aerodynamic performance in the nonstandard atmosphere is density altitude—the altitude in the standard atmosphere corresponding to a particular value of air density.
Density altitude is pressure altitude corrected for nonstandard temperature. As the density of the air increases (lower density altitude), aircraft performance increases. Conversely, as air density decreases (higher density altitude), aircraft performance decreases. A decrease in air density means a high density altitude; an increase in air density means a lower density altitude. Density altitude is used in calculating aircraft performance. Under standard atmospheric condition, air at each level in the atmosphere has a specific density; under standard conditions, pressure altitude and density altitude identify the same level. Density altitude, then, is the vertical distance above sea level in the standard atmosphere at which a given density is to be found.
The computation of density altitude must involve consideration of pressure (pressure altitude) and temperature. Since aircraft performance data at any level is based upon air density under standard day conditions, such performance data apply to air density levels that may not be identical to altimeter indications. Under conditions higher or lower than standard, these levels cannot be determined directly from the altimeter.
Density altitude is determined by first finding pressure altitude, and then correcting this altitude for nonstandard temperature variations. Since density varies directly with pressure, and inversely with temperature, a given pressure altitude may exist for a wide range of temperature by allowing the density to vary. However, a known density occurs for any one temperature and pressure altitude. The density of the air, of course, has a pronounced effect on aircraft and engine performance. Regardless of the actual altitude at which the aircraft is operating, it will perform as though it were operating at an altitude equal to the existing density altitude.
For example, when set at 29.92 “Hg, the altimeter may indicate a pressure altitude of 5,000 feet. According to the AFM/POH, the ground run on takeoff may require a distance of 790 feet under standard temperature conditions.
However, if the temperature is 20 °C above standard, the expansion of air raises the density level. Using temperature correction data from tables or graphs, or by deriving the density altitude with a computer, it may be found that the density level is above 7,000 feet, and the ground run may be closer to 1,000 feet.
Air density is affected by changes in altitude, temperature, and humidity. High density altitude refers to thin air while low density altitude refers to dense air. The conditions that result in a high density altitude are high elevations, low atmospheric pressures, high temperatures, high humidity, or some combination of these factors. Lower elevations, high atmospheric pressure, low temperatures, and low humidity are more indicative of low density altitude.
Using a flight computer, density altitude can be computed by inputting the pressure altitude and outside air temperature at flight level. Density altitude can also be determined by referring to the table and chart in Figures 10-3 and 10-4.