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Pressure and Density Altitude

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Air density is the mass of air per unit volume (definition). It is a measure of the number of air molecules in a unit volume of air. Air is held to the earth’s surface by the force of gravity and so, the higher one goes in the atmosphere, the ‘thinner’ (less dense) the air. An International standard Atmosphere (ISA) has been defined as a measuring stick against which the actual atmosphere existing at a particular time and place can be compared. A number of characteristics (such as pressure, temperature and density) are specified for various levels in the International Standard Atmosphere. Air pressure in the ISA is 1013 hectoPascals at Mean Sea Level and the pressure decreases with altitude, at about 1 hPa per 30 feet gain in height in the lower levels of the atmosphere. Air temperature in the ISA is +15oC at Mean Sea Level and decreases at approximately 2oC per 1000 feet gain in altitude. Air density in the ISA decreases with a gain in altitude. The main function of the Standard Atmosphere is to calibrate altimeters (which are basically pressure reading devices) so that they match up certain air pressures with the correct altitudes. With the altimeter set on 1013 hPa (ISA MSL), it will display the air pressure that it is measuring as the altitude in the International Standard Atmosphere that has that air pressure. This is known as Pressure Height.

0 9 8 1 2

7 6

1013 4 5

3 Standard Pressure

Fig 1. Altimeter displays pressure height when the sub-scale is set on 1013 hPa ACTUAL MEAN SEA LEVEL PRESSURE VARIES The actual air pressure that exists at a given place varies from day to day and from hour to hour. In aviation, we cope with this by using the QNH pressure setting in the altimeter subscale that relates the altimeter reading to the sea level pressure, whatever it happens to be at that time and place.

210 = 560 ft . altimeter reads altitude CALCULATING PRESSURE HEIGHT. Example 1. 0 9 8 1 2 7 6 1030 4 5 3 QNH Fig 2. or by • using the difference between QNH and 1013 to convert altitude to pressure height If actual sea level pressure differs from the standard atmosphere of 1013 hPa. With QNH set in the sub-scale. you must ensure that the correct QNH is set in the sub-scale. We convert altitude to pressure height by allowing 30 feet for each 1 hPa pressure difference.For the altimeter to read altitude (height above sea level) accurately. What is its pressure height? 670 ft Pressure Height 1013 HPa 7 Hpa 7 x30 = 210 ft 1020 Hpa QNH 670 . KNOWING ALTITUDE We can determine pressure height by either: • reading the altimeter with 1013 set in the sub-scale. then a simple diagram will help us with any calculations of pressure height. An aerodrome of elevation 670 ft has an Aerodrome QNH of 1020 hPa.

Since the highest terrain in Australia is less than 8.500-660=15. What is its pressure height? 8500 feet Pressure Height 8500 + 510 = 9010 996 Hpa QNH 17 x 30 = 510 1013 HPa ALTIMETRY PROCEDURES FOR CRUISING AIRCRAFT Cruising below 10.Example 2.000 ft.500 Height AMSL = 16.840 Aircraft would try and take the top 160 feet off the mountain 22x30 = 660 feet Fig 3. . For this reason. A balloon is flying at an altitude of 8.000 ft AMSL. It still provides safety in that all aircraft above 10. separation from terrain is a consideration and so height AMSL is worthwhile knowing reasonably accurately. QNH 996 hPa. To allow the altimeter to indicate altitude (ie height AMSL).000 ft is FL150 Pressure height 21. Pressure height 15.000 ft AMSL. The highest terrain in Papua New Guinea is approximately 16.000 ft have 1013 hPa set in the altimeter sub-scale. QNH varies from time to time and place to place and must be continually updated (every hour or so as advised). As a matter of convenience. cruising aircraft above 10.500 ft. rather than altitude. pressure heights above 10.000 ft is FL210 FL 165 QNH 1035 16. it is usual to cruise with QNH set in the subscale.000 AMSL PH = 16. the transition from QNH setting to 1013 hPa is not made in PNG until 20.000 ft have 1013 hPa set and can determine their vertical separation from each other using pressure heights indicated.000 ft are referred to as flight levels. This does not have to be continually updated of course.000 ft in Australia.

ISA temperature = +15 . ISA temperature = +15 .7x2 = +1oC At 8.000 ft pressure height.000 ft gained in altitude. ISA temperature = +15 . ISA Temperatures .AIR TEMPERATURE DECREASES WITH HEIGHT IN THE STANDARD ATMOSPHERE ISA MSL temperature is +15oC and decreases by 2oC for every 1.000 ft pressure height.20x2 = -25oC At FL250.000 ft pressure height.000 ft pressure height.000 ft pressure height. ISA temperature = +15 -2 = + 13oC At 2.3x2 = +9oC At 7.25x2 = -35oC Fig 4. ISA temperature = +15 .2x2 = 11oC At 3.000 ft pressure height. ISA MSL is another way of saying “pressure height zero” At 1.8x2 = -1oC At 20. ISA temperature = +15 . ISA temperature = +15 .

+14oC at pressure height 3.490. At PH 9.000 .10 = -27oC EXAMPLE 4: Altitude 10. eg.Any variation from ISA temperature at a given pressure height may be written as either • the actual temperature.500.500 ft.17x30 = 10. ISA -10? At 16.32 = -17oC ISA-10 = -17 . at PH 3. which is 8oC colder than -4oC. -12oC.000 =14oC = ISA+5 EXAMPLE 3: What temperature is PH 16.000 ft. or • the ISA variation.000 ft PH ISA = +15 . QNH 1030 Outside Air Temperature (OAT) .500.510 = 9. eg.2x16 = +15 . say 9. is therefore ISA-8 .000 ft.000 . ISA = +15 .12oC What ISA variation is this? PH = 10.5 = =15-19 = -4oC At PH 9.000.2 x 9.

000 ft. This causes the air density Rho to decrease.510 = 9490 ISA Variation +6 oC = -4 oC + 10 = ISA +10 1013 HPa 17 x 30 = 510 1030 HPa QNH Density Height DH = PH +. For each 1oC in excess of ISA at a given pressure height. the density height will be approximately 120 ft higher than the pressure height. As air warms up at constant pressure.690 feet . yet the pressure height will remain unchanged.AIR DENSITY VARIES WITH HEIGHT In the Standard Atmosphere.Temp Correction = 9490 + 10 x 120 = 10.200 = 14. +6oC 10 000 feet ISA Temp @ PH 9. EXAMPLE 5: Determine the density height at pressure height 13.2 x 9. QNH 1030.000 + 10x 120 = 13.000 + 1. since there will be fewer air molecules per unit volume.000 ft (Flight Level 130) ISA + 10 DH = PH 13.500 = +15 .5 = -4 oC Pressure Height 10.200 EXAMPLE 6: Determine the density height at altitude 10. pressure height and density height at any one point are equal. it expands.000 .

500 = +15 . QNH 996.5 x 120 = 9.510 ISA Variation -11 oC = -6 oC -5 = ISA -5 Density Height DH = PH +.5 = -6 oC Pressure Height 10.990feet 1030 HPa QNH 17 x 30 = 510 1013 HPa .Temp Correction = 10.510 .EXAMPLE 7: Determine the density height at altitude 10. -11oC 10 000 feet ISA Temp @ PH 10.2 x 10.000 + 510 =10.000 ft.

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