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Altimeter Setting Procedures
- 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
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.
- Failure to set the appropriate pressure setting can result in deviation from the cleared altitude or flight level leading to level bust, loss of separation from other traffic, and even collision with other aircraft or with the ground (CFIT).
- Loss of situational awareness due to failure to appreciate the significance of a pressure setting (especially QFE as opposed to QNH). This can result in incorrect appreciation of the closeness of the ground possibly leading to an unstabilised approach or collision with the ground (CFIT).
- 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.
- 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.
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, vicinity Birmingham UK, 2006 (LB CFIT HF) (On 24 November 2006, an A310 descended significantly below cleared altitude during a radar vectored approach positioning, as a result of the flight crew's failure to set the QNH, which was unusually low.)
- B738, en-route, Arabian Sea, 2010 (LOC LB HF) (On 26 May 2010, a Boeing 737-800 being operated by Air India Express on a passenger flight from Dubai UAE to Pune, India was in the cruise at night at FL370 near PARAR when a sudden high speed descent occurred without ATC clearance during which nearly 7000 feet of altitude was lost in a little over 30 seconds before recovery was made. The remainder of the flight was uneventful. Despite the abnormal pitch, pitch change and ‘g’ variation, none of the 113 occupants had been injured.)
- 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.)
- 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.)
- 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.
- RJ1H, vicinity Zurich Switzerland, 2001 (CFIT FIRE HF) (On 24 November 2001, a Crossair Avro RJ100 making a night non precision approach to Zurich violated approach minima and subsequently impacted terrain whilst making a delayed attempt to initiate a go around. The aircraft was destroyed by the impact and post crash fire and 24 of the 33 occupants were killed. The Investigation attributed the crash to the crew deliberately continuing descent below MDA without having acquired the prescribed visual reference. Both crew pairing and aspects of the crew as individuals were identified as the context.)
- C30J, en-route, northern Sweden 2012 (CFIT HF FIRE) (On 15 March 2012, a Royal Norwegian Air Force C130J-30 Hercules en route on a positioning transport flight from northern Norway to northern Sweden crossed the border, descended into uncontrolled airspace below MSA and entered IMC. Shortly after levelling at FL 070, it flew into the side of a 6608 foot high mountain. The Investigation concluded that although the direct cause was the actions of the crew, Air Force procedures supporting the operation were deficient. It also found that the ATC service provided had been contrary to regulations and attributed this to inadequate controller training.)
- B733, vicinity Manchester UK, 1997 (LB CFIT HF) (On 1 August 1997, an Air Malta B737, descending for an approach into Manchester UK in poor weather, descended significantly below the cleared and correctly acknowledged altitude, below MSA.)
- DH8A, vicinity Palmerston North New Zealand, 1995 (CFIT HF AW) (On 9 June 1995 a de Havilland DHC-8-100 collided with terrain some 16 km east of Palmerston North aerodrome while carrying out a daytime instrument approach. The airplane departed Auckland as scheduled Ansett New Zealand flight 703 to Palmerston North airport.)
- FA20, vicinity Narsarsuaq Greenland, 2001 (CFIT HF) (On 5 August 2001, a Dassault Falcon 20, operated by Naske Air, on a non-scheduled international cargo flight, crashed on the final approach to runway 07 at Narsarsuaq, Greenland (BGBW), the aircraft impacting mountainous terrain 4.5 NM SW of the aerodrome.)
- … 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.
- 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