The altimeter is an instrument that measures the height of an aircraft above a given pressure level. Pressure levels are discussed later in detail. Since the altimeter is the only instrument that is capable of indicating altitude, this is one of the most vital instruments installed in the aircraft. To use the altimeter effectively, the pilot must understand the operation of the instrument, as well as the errors associated with the altimeter and how each affect the indication.

A stack of sealed aneroid wafers comprise the main component of the altimeter. An aneroid wafer is a sealed wafer that is evacuated to an internal pressure of 29.92 inches of mercury (“Hg). These wafers are free to expand and contract with changes to the static pressure. A higher static pressure presses down on the wafers and causes them to collapse. A lower static pressure (less than 29.92 “Hg) allows the wafers to expand. A mechanical linkage connects the wafer movement to the needles on the indicator face, which translates compression of the wafers into a decrease in altitude and translates an expansion of the wafers into an increase in altitude. [Figure 1-2]

Figure 1-2. Altimeter.

Notice how the static pressure is introduced into the rear of the sealed altimeter case. The altimeter’s outer chamber is sealed, which allows the static pressure to surround the aneroid wafers. If the static pressure is higher than the pressure in the aneroid wafers (29.92 “Hg), then the wafers are compressed until the pressure inside the wafers is equal to the surrounding static pressure. Conversely, if the static pressure is less than the pressure inside of the wafers, the wafers are able to expand which increases the volume. The expansion and contraction of the wafers moves the mechanical linkage which drives the needles on the face of the altimeter.

Principle of Operation

The pressure altimeter is an aneroid barometer that measures the pressure of the atmosphere at the level where the altimeter is located and presents an altitude indication in feet. The altimeter uses static pressure as its source of operation. Air is denser at sea level than aloft—as altitude increases, atmospheric pressure decreases. This difference in pressure at various levels causes the altimeter to indicate changes in altitude.

The presentation of altitude varies considerably between different types of altimeters. Some have one pointer while others have two or more. Only the multipointer type is discussed in this handbook. The dial of a typical altimeter is graduated with numerals arranged clockwise from zero to nine. Movement of the aneroid element is transmitted through gears to the three hands that indicate altitude. In Figure 8-2, the long, thin needle with the inverted triangle at the end indicates tens of thousands of feet; the short, wide needle indicates thousands of feet; and the long needle on top indicates hundreds of feet.

This indicated altitude is correct, however, only when the sea level barometric pressure is standard (29.92 “Hg), the sea level free air temperature is standard (+15 degrees Celsius (°C) or 59 degrees Fahrenheit (°F)), and the pressure and temperature decrease at a standard rate with an increase in altitude. Adjustments for nonstandard pressures are accomplished by setting the corrected pressure into a barometric scale located on the face of the altimeter. The barometric pressure window is sometimes referred to as the Kollsman window; only after the altimeter is set does it indicate the correct altitude. The word “correct” will need to be better explained when referring to types of altitudes, but is commonly used in this case to denote the approximate altitude above sea level. In other words, the indicated altitude refers to the altitude read off of the altitude which is uncorrected, after the barometric pressure setting is dialed into the Kollsman window. The additional types of altitudes are further explained later.

Effect of Nonstandard Pressure and Temperature

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 and 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 “Hg. When the altimeter cannot be set to the higher pressure setting, the aircraft actual altitude is 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.

Figure 1-3. Effects of nonstandard temperature on an altimeter.

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 1-3] 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.

Figure 1-4.

Look at the chart using a temperature of –10 °C and an aircraft altitude of 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.

Extremely cold temperatures also affect altimeter indications. [Figure 1-4], which was derived from ICAO formulas, indicates how much error can exist when the temperature is extremely cold.