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Atmospheric Effects on Density

by Flight Learnings

in Aircraft Performance

Effects of Pressure on Density

Since air is a gas, it can be compressed or expanded. When air is compressed, a greater amount of air can occupy a given volume. Conversely, when pressure on a given volume of air is decreased, the air expands and occupies a greater space. That is, the original column of air at a lower pressure contains a smaller mass of air. In other words, the density is decreased. In fact, density is directly proportional to pressure. If the pressure is doubled, the density is doubled, and if the pressure is lowered, so is the density. This statement is true only at a constant temperature.

Effects of Temperature on Density

Increasing the temperature of a substance decreases its density. Conversely, decreasing the temperature increases the density. Thus, the density of air varies inversely with temperature. This statement is true only at a constant pressure.

In the atmosphere, both temperature and pressure decrease with altitude, and have conflicting effects upon density. However, the fairly rapid drop in pressure as altitude is increased usually has the dominant effect. Hence, pilots can expect the density to decrease with altitude.

Effects of Humidity (Moisture) on Density

The preceding paragraphs are based on the presupposition of perfectly dry air. In reality, it is never completely dry. The small amount of water vapor suspended in the atmosphere may be negligible under certain conditions, but in other conditions humidity may become an important factor in the performance of an aircraft. Water vapor is lighter than air; consequently, moist air is lighter than dry air. Therefore, as the water content of the air increases, the air becomes less dense, increasing density altitude and decreasing performance. It is lightest or least dense when, in a given set of conditions, it contains the maximum amount of water vapor.

Humidity, also called relative humidity, refers to the amount of water vapor contained in the atmosphere, and is expressed as a percentage of the maximum amount of water vapor the air can hold. This amount varies with the temperature; warm air can hold more water vapor, while colder air can hold less. Perfectly dry air that contains no water vapor has a relative humidity of zero percent, while saturated air that cannot hold any more water vapor has a relative humidity of 100 percent. Humidity alone is usually not considered an essential factor in calculating density altitude and aircraft performance; however, it does contribute.

The higher the temperature, the greater amount of water vapor that the air can hold. When comparing two separate air masses, the first warm and moist (both qualities making air lighter) and the second cold and dry (both qualities making it heavier), the first must be less dense than the second. Pressure, temperature, and humidity have a great influence on aircraft performance because of their effect upon density. There is no rule-of-thumb or chart used to compute the effects of humidity on density altitude, but it must be taken into consideration. Expect a decrease in overall performance in high humidity conditions.Performance

Performance is a term used to describe the ability of an aircraft to accomplish certain things that make it useful for certain purposes. For example, the ability of an aircraft to land and take off in a very short distance is an important factor to the pilot who operates in and out of short, unimproved airfields. The ability to carry heavy loads, fly at high altitudes at fast speeds, or travel long distances is essential performance for operators of airline and executive type aircraft.

The primary factors most affected by performance are the takeoff and landing distance, rate of climb, ceiling, payload, range, speed, maneuverability, stability, and fuel economy. Some of these factors are often directly opposed: for example, high speed versus short landing distance, long range versus great payload, and high rate of climb versus fuel economy. It is the preeminence of one or more of these factors that dictates differences between aircraft and explains the high degree of specialization found in modern aircraft.

The various items of aircraft performance result from the combination of aircraft and powerplant characteristics. The aerodynamic characteristics of the aircraft generally define the power and thrust requirements at various conditions of flight, while powerplant characteristics generally define the power and thrust available at various conditions of flight. The matching of the aerodynamic configuration with the powerplant is accomplished by the manufacturer to provide maximum performance at the specific design condition (e.g., range, endurance, and climb).

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