AS9120B, ISO 9001:2015, and FAA AC 0056B ACCREDITED

The Various Types of Altitude in Aviation

In this blog, we will delve into various altitude categories, covering pressure altitude, density altitude, and their relevance to aviation.

Pressure Altitude

One of the primary altitudes pilots deal with is pressure at altitude. This altitude is determined by measuring the atmospheric pressure at a given location and comparing it to the standard atmospheric pressure at sea level. Pressure altitude does not directly relate to the actual altitude above the ground; rather, it provides a standard reference point for setting altimeters and other flight instruments.

Aircraft altimeters work on the principle that atmospheric pressure decreases with altitude, and by setting the altimeter to the standard pressure at sea level, pilots can get an accurate reading of their altitude above sea level. This standardization allows for safe and consistent navigation in different regions and altitudes. As a result, reference points are essential when using altimeters.

Density Altitude

Density altitude is a crucial concept that affects aircraft performance, especially engine power and aerodynamics. It represents the altitude at which the air density is the same as the standard atmosphere at sea level. Essentially, density altitude accounts for air density variations due to factors such as temperature and altitude.

Warmer air is less dense, which means that an aircraft will experience reduced engine performance and lift at higher temperatures, even if it is flying at a particular pressure and altitude. Conversely, cooler air is denser, which improves aircraft performance. Therefore, density altitude is a critical parameter for calculating an aircraft's true performance capabilities under varying weather conditions.

Pilots must consider density altitude when planning takeoffs and landings, especially in high-elevation or hot-weather airports. An aircraft's actual takeoff distance, climb rate, and engine performance will differ significantly when operating at high density altitudes, which could affect safety and the success of the flight.

True Altitude

While pressure altitude provides a standardized reference point for navigation, true altitude represents the actual height above mean sea level (MSL) or above the ground. This is the altitude you will see on a topographical map, and it is used for obstacle clearance and terrain avoidance. To calculate true altitude, pilots must adjust their pressure altitude to temperature variations, a process known as temperature correction.

Temperature correction is necessary, because as the air gets colder, it becomes denser, causing an altimeter to read a lower value. Conversely, in warmer conditions, the altimeter may read a higher value. Pilots use standard temperature-lapse rates to make these corrections, ensuring their true altitude is accurate for navigation and obstacle avoidance.

Indicated Altitude

Indicated altitude is the reading directly from an aircraft's altimeter without corrections, as It is what pilots see in the cockpit and use for their day-to-day operations. However, indicated altitude is not always the same as the other altitudes we have discussed. For example, atmospheric pressure variations can cause indicated altitude and true altitude to differ, making pressure altitude the reference for navigation.


In summary, aviation relies on a variety of altitude types for different purposes, and understanding these altitude types is crucial for pilots as it directly impacts flight safety and performance. Consequently, having the right tools to gauge and track accurate altitude information is of paramount importance.

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August 23, 2022
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