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Pressure Altitude – Climb Performance (Part One)

in Aircraft Performance

Climb performance is a result of using the aircrafts potential energy provided by one, or a combination of two factors. The first is the use of excess power above that required for level flight. An aircraft equipped with an engine capable of 200 horsepower (at a given altitude) but using 130 horsepower to sustain level flight (at a given airspeed) has 70 excess horsepower available for climbing. A second factor is that the aircraft can tradeoff its kinetic energy and increase its potential energy by reducing its airspeed. The reduction in airspeed will increase the aircraft’s potential energy thereby also making the aircraft climb. Both terms, power and thrust are often used in aircraft performance however, they should not be confused.

Although the terms “power” and “thrust” are sometimes used interchangeably, erroneously implying that they are synonymous, it is important to distinguish between the two when discussing climb performance. Work is the product of a force moving through a distance and is usually independent of time. Work is measured by several standards; the most common unit is called a foot-pound. If a one pound mass is raised one foot, a work unit of one foot-pound has been performed. The common unit of mechanical power is horsepower; one horsepower is work equivalent to lifting 33,000 pounds a vertical distance of one foot in one minute. The term power implies work rate or units of work per unit of time, and as such is a function of the speed at which the force is developed. Thrust, also a function of work, means the force that imparts a change in the velocity of a mass. This force is measured in pounds but has no element of time or rate. It can be said then, that during a steady climb, the rate of climb is a function of excess thrust.

This relationship means that, for a given weight of an aircraft, the angle of climb depends on the difference between thrust and drag, or the excess power. [Figure 10-7] Of course, when the excess thrust is zero, the inclination of the flightpath is zero, and the aircraft will be in steady, level flight. When the thrust is greater than the drag, the excess thrust will allow a climb angle depending on the value of excess thrust. On the other hand, when the thrust is less than the drag, the deficiency of thrust will allow an angle of descent.

Figure 10-7. Thrust versus climb angle.

Figure 10-7. Thrust versus climb angle.

The most immediate interest in the climb angle performance involves obstacle clearance. The most obvious purpose for which it might be used is to clear obstacles when climbing out of short or confined airports.

The maximum angle of climb would occur where there exists the greatest difference between thrust available and thrust required; i.e., for the propeller-powered airplane, the maximum excess thrust and angle of climb will occur at some speed just above the stall speed. Thus, if it is necessary to clear an obstacle after takeoff, the propeller-powered airplane will attain maximum angle of climb at an airspeed close to—if not at—the takeoff speed.

Of greater interest in climb performance are the factors that affect the rate of climb. The vertical velocity of an aircraft depends on the flight speed and the inclination of the flightpath. In fact, the rate of climb is the vertical component of the flightpath velocity.


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