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Altimeter Setting Procedures

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Category: Level Bust Level Bust
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Content control: EUROCONTROL EUROCONTROL

Description

The aircraft altimeter barometric sub-scale must be set to the appropriate setting for the phase of flight. These are:

  • Flight level. Standard pressure setting (1013 hPa) is set when flying by reference to flight levels above the transition altitude;
  • Altitude. Regional or airfield pressure setting (QNH) is set when flying by reference to altitude above mean sea level below the transition level;
  • Height. Altimeter pressure setting indicating height above airfield or touchdown (QFE) is set when approaching to land at airfield where this procedure is in use.

Failure to set the appropriate barometric sub-scale pressure setting may result in a significant deviation from the cleared altitude or Flight Level

altimeter setting
Altimeter Setting

Types of Altimeter Setting Error

  • The pilot mishears the transmitted pressure setting and sets an incorrect figure.
  • The pilot hears the transmitted pressure setting correctly but fails to set it or mis-sets it.
  • The pilot fails to change the pressure setting at the appropriate point in a departure, climb, descent or approach.

Effects

Defences

Effective SOPs contained in company flight operations manuals which specify appropriate procedures for the setting and cross-checking of altimeter barometric sub scales.

Typical Scenarios

  • A pilot fails to ensure that standard pressure is set when passing the transition altitude in the climb, and levels the aircraft at a flight level which differs from the cleared level by an amount dependent on the difference between the QNH and 1013 hPa.
  • A pilot fails to set QNH when passing the transition level in the descent and levels the aircraft at an altitude which differs from the cleared altitude by an amount dependent on the difference between QNH and 1013 hPa.
  • A pilot un-used to landing with QFE set, does not remember that the altimeter now indicates height above airfield elevation or touch-down zone.

Solutions

  • The existence of appropriate SOPs for the setting and cross-checking of altimeter sub scales and their strict observance is the only universal primary solution to eliminate incorrect altimeter setting.
  • Use of the aircraft radio altimeter to monitor the aircraft proximity with the ground can help to improve situational awareness provided that the flight crew are generally familiar with the terrain over which they are flying;
  • GPWS/TAWS provide a safety net against CFIT and, in the case of TAWS Class 'A' with its option of a simple terrain mapping display, it can also be used to directly improve routine situational awareness.

Related Articles

Accidents and Incidents

Events in which the incorrect altimeter pressure setting was either a cause or contributing factor in a Level Bust or CFIT/near CFIT:

  • A310 / B736, en-route, Southern Norway, 2001 (LB LOS HF) (On 21 February 2001, a level bust 10 nm north of Oslo Airport by a climbing PIA A310 led to loss of separation with an SAS B736 in which response to a TCAS RA by the A310 not being in accordance with its likely activation (descend). The B736 received and correctly actioned a Climb RA.)
  • BE20/SF34, Vicinity Stornoway UK, 2011 (LB LOS HF) (On 31 December 2011 a USAF C12 Beech King Air descended 700 feet below the cleared outbound altitude on a procedural non precision approach to Stornoway in uncontrolled airspace in IMC and also failed to fly the procedure correctly. As a result it came into conflict with a Saab 340 inbound on the same procedure. The Investigation found that the C12 crew had interpreted the QNH given by ATC as 990 hPa as 29.90 inches, the subscale setting units used in the USA. The Saab 340 pilot saw the opposite direction traffic on TCAS and descended early to increase separation.)
  • A320, vicinity Oslo Norway, 2008 (CFIT LB HF AGC) (On 19 December 2008, an Aeroflot Airbus A320 descended significantly below its cleared and acknowledged altitude after the crew lost situational awareness at night whilst attempting to establish on the ILS at Oslo from an extreme intercept track after a late runway change and an unchallenged incorrect readback. The Investigation concluded that the response to the EGPWS warning which resulted had been “late and slow” but that the risk of CFIT was “present but not imminent”. The context for the event was considered to have been poor communications between ATC and the aircraft in respect of changes of landing runway.)
  • FA50, vicinity London City UK, 2010 (CFIT LB HF) (On 21 January 2010, a Mystere Falcon 50 being operated by TAG Aviation on a positioning flight from Biggin Hill to London City in day VMC began a descent at a high rate below its cleared altitude of 2000 ft amsl because the aircraft commander believed, on the basis of external visual cues, that the aircraft was on a final approach track for Runway 27 at destination when in fact it was downwind for Runway 09. After an alert from ATC as the aircraft passed 900 ft agl at a rate of descent of approximately 2200 fpm, recovery to a normal landing on Runway 09 was achieved.)
  • GLF5 / A319, south-eastern France, 2004 (LB LOS HF) (On 16 September 2004, a loss of separation occurred over Geneva between Air France A319 and a Gulfstream 5 which commenced descent without clearance by ATC and with coordinated TCAS RAs not followed by either aircraft.)
  • … further results

"Pressure altimeter setting error" is not in the list of possible values (Accepted ATC Clearance not followed, SID bust, Clearance readback error undetected, TCAS RA response, Manual flight) for this property.

  • DH8D, Vicinity Exeter UK, 2010 (CFIT LB AW HF) (On 11 September 2010, a DHC8-400 being operated by Flybe on a scheduled passenger flight from Bergerac France to Exeter failed to level as cleared during the approach at destination in day VMC and continued a premature descent without the awareness of either pilot due to distraction following a minor system malfunction until an EGPWS ‘PULL UP’ Hard Warning occurred following which a recovery climb was initiated. There were no abrupt manoeuvres and no injuries to any of the 53 occupants.)
  • A109, vicinity London Heliport London UK, 2013 (CFIT FIRE HF WX) (On 16 January 2013, an Augusta 109E helicopter positioning by day on an implied (due to adverse weather conditions) SVFR clearance collided with a crane attached to a tall building under construction. It and associated debris fell to street level and the pilot and a pedestrian were killed and several others on the ground injured. It was concluded that the pilot had not seen the crane or seen it too late to avoid whilst flying by visual reference in conditions which had become increasingly challenging. The Investigation recommended improvements in the regulatory context in which the accident had occurred.)
  • SU95, manoeuvring near Jakarta Indonesia, 2012 (CFIT HF FIRE) (On 9 May 2012, a Sukhoi RRJ-95 on a manufacturer-operated demonstration flight out of Jakarta descended below the promulgated safe altitude and, after TAWS alerts and warnings had been ignored, impacted terrain in level flight which resulted in the destruction of the aeroplane and death of all 45 occupants. The Investigation concluded that that the operating crew were unaware that their descent would take them below some of the terrain in the area until the alerts started and then assumed they had been triggered by an incorrect database and switched the equipment off.)
  • C185, Smithers BC Canada, 2000 (CFIT) (On 27 September 2000, a Cessna 185, struck a snow covered hillside, probably while in controlled flight, en-route from Smithers BC, Canada.)
  • A306, vicinity Birmingham AL USA, 2013 (CFIT HF FIRE) (On 14 August 2013, a UPS Airbus A300-600 crashed short of the runway at Birmingham Alabama during a night non precision approach in IMC after the crew has failed to go around at 1000ft aal when unstabilised at that altitude and then continued descent below MDA until terrain impact. The Investigation attributed the accident to the individually poor performance of both pilots, to performance deficiencies previously-exhibited in recurrent training by the Captain and to the First Officer's failure to call in fatigued and unfit to fly after mis-managing her off duty time.)
  • … further results

"Pressure altimeter setting error" is not in the list of possible values (Into water, Into terrain, Into obstruction, No Visual Reference, Lateral Navigation Error, Vertical navigation error, VFR flight plan, IFR flight plan) for this property.

Further Reading

ICAO

  • Doc 8168 (PANS-OPS), Volume I, Flight Procedures - Part VI - Altimeter Setting Procedures - Chapter 3.
  • ICAO Video: Altimetry - Basic Principles;

Flight Safety Foundation ALAR Toolkit

EUROCONTROL Level Bust Toolkit

Airbus Briefing Notes