In its purest form, an altimeter is simply an absolute pressure gauge. This means that it is displaying the pressure being exerted by the atmosphere at its current location.
The earth is surrounded by an atmosphere. This atmosphere is the air that we breathe. The atmosphere is held in place by the earth’s gravity. The atmosphere has a specific weight. The weight of the atmosphere is approximately 14 pounds of weight for every square inch of earth when measured at sea level on an average day.
An accurate method of measuring this weight is to use a barometer. A barometer is a reservoir filled with mercury. The reservoir has two openings; one opening is exposed to the atmosphere and the other empties into a glass tube. The atmosphere pushes down on the mercury within the reservoir causing the mercury to fill up the glass tube. How far the mercury goes up into the glass tube is directly proportional to the weight of the atmosphere pushing it. This is why barometric pressure is normally expressed in terms of “Inches of Mercury (InHg)”.
At sea level, on an average day, the barometric pressure is 29.92 InHg. However, this will vary constantly depending on the weather. Stormy weather tends to pull the atmosphere away from the earth’s surface causing lower pressure. Hot, dry weather pushes the atmosphere down causing higher pressure.
The weight of the atmosphere also changes depending on altitude. The closer to sea level that you are, the more air there will be, consequently the atmosphere will weigh more. As you go higher in altitude, the less dense the atmosphere will be, therefore less weight or pressure is exerted. An altimeter measures this change in atmospheric weight as expressed in terms of pressure or feet of altitude.
All About Altimeters
The altimeter provides the basic function of indicating to the pilot the altitude of the aircraft above mean (average) sea level (MSL). The indicator is normally a 31/8” size dial face with multiple pointers or a combination of pointers and counter drum. Location of this indicator is typically in the top row of instruments near the center of the instrument panel. In a standard “T” configuration panel the altimeter is just to the right of the attitude gyroscope.
Types of Altimeters
The various types of altimeters include:
- Three pointer altimeter
- Counter Drum Altimeter
- Encoding Altimeter
Typical altimeter ranges are:
- –1000 Ft. to +20,000 Ft.
- –1000 Ft. to +35,000 Ft.
- –1000 Ft. to +50,000 Ft.
- –1000 Ft. to +80,000 Ft.
Most general aviation altimeters will fall into the first two ranges. Ranges above 35,000 Ft. are typically corporate jets, commercial aircraft, and military aircraft.
Three Pointer Altimeter
The three-pointer altimeter is the most common type of instrument used in general aviation. It is named as such because it utilizes three pointers in order to display the current altitude. One pointer is used to display 100 Ft. increments. A second pointer is used to display 1000 Ft. increments and the third pointer displays 10,000 Ft. increments. The Technical Information Section of this document provides instructions on how to properly read a three-pointer altimeter.
Counter Drum Altimeter
The counter-drum altimeter is named as such because it displays altitude utilizing a single pointer and a rotating drum that displays digits. The drum displays ten thousand and one thousand foot increments. The pointer displays from 0 to 999 feet.
An encoding altimeter can be of either the three-pointer or counter drum type of altimeter with an encoding module built into it. The encoding module takes the altitude information and converts that data into a digital code. This code is then sent via a set of wires to the aircraft transponder. A transponder is a radio device that reports the aircraft altitude to ground control radar.
The blind encoder is a very special type of altimeter. This unit has no dial or read out that is visible to the user. It has only an electronic output to the aircraft transponder. The use of a standard altimeter in conjunction with a blind encoder is often more economical than purchasing an encoding altimeter.