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Aircraft Pressurisation Systems

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Article Information
Category: Flight Technical Flight Technical
Content source: SKYbrary About SKYbrary
Content control: SKYbrary About SKYbrary

Definition

A system which ensures the comfort and safety of crew and passengers by controlling the cabin pressure and the exchange of air from the inside of the aircraft to the outside.

Discussion

Aircraft engines become more efficient with increase in altitude, burning less fuel for a given airspeed. In addition, by flying above weather and associated turbulence, the flight is smoother and the aircraft less fatigued. Crews will therefore normally fly as close to the aircraft’s Cruise Ceiling as they can depending on flight rules and any other constraints such as the aircraft oxygen system. In order to be able to fly at high attitudes, the aircraft needs to be pressurised so that the crew and passengers can breathe without the need for supplemental oxygen.

The cabin and cargo holds (or baggage compartments) on most aircraft are contained within a sealed unit which is capable of containing air under pressure higher than the Ambient Pressure outside of the aircraft. Bleed Air from the turbine engines is used to pressurise the cabin and air is released from the cabin by an Outflow Valve. By using a cabin pressure regulator, to manage the flow of air through the outflow valve, the pressure within the aircraft can be increased or decreased as required, either to maintain a set Differential Pressure or a set Cabin Altitude.

In practice, as an aircraft climbs, for the comfort of the passengers, the pressurisation system will gradually increase the cabin altitude and the differential pressure at the same time. If the aircraft continues to climb once the maximum differential pressure is reached, the differential pressure will be maintained while the cabin altitude climbs. The maximum cruise altitude will be limited by the need to keep the cabin altitude at or below 8,000 ft.

A safety valve:

  • acts as a relief valve, releasing air from the cabin to prevent the cabin pressure from exceeding the maximum differential pressure,
  • acts a vacuum relief valve, allowing air into the cabin when the ambient pressure exceeds the cabin pressure, and
  • acts as a dump valve, allowing the crew to dump cabin air manually.

A Cabin Altimeter, Differential Pressure Gauge, and Cabin Rate of Climb gauge help the crew to monitor the aircraft pressurisation.

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Accident & Incidents

Events held on the SKYbrary A&I database which include reference to the air conditioning system include:

  • B737 en-route, Glen Innes NSW Australia, 2007 (On 17 November 2007 a Boeing 737-700 made an emergency descent after the air conditioning and pressurisation system failed in the climb out of Coolangatta at FL318 due to loss of all bleed air. A diversion to Brisbane followed. The Investigation found that the first bleed supply had failed at low speed on take off but that continued take off had been continued contrary to SOP. It was also found that the actions taken by the crew in response to the fault after completing the take off had also been also contrary to those prescribed.)
  • B738, Glasgow UK, 2012 (On 19 October 2012, a Jet2-operated Boeing 737-800 departing Glasgow made a high speed rejected take off when a strange smell became apparent in the flight deck and the senior cabin crew reported what appeared to be smoke in the cabin. The subsequent emergency evacuation resulted in one serious passenger injury. The Investigation was unable to conclusively identify a cause of the smoke and the also- detected burning smells but excess moisture in the air conditioning system was considered likely to have been a factor and the Operator subsequently made changes to its maintenance procedures.)
  • H25B / AS29, en-route / manoeuvring, near Smith NV USA, 2006 (On 28 August 2006, a Hawker 800 collided with a glider at 16,000 feet in Class 'E' airspace. The glider became uncontrollable and its pilot evacuated by parachute. The Hawker was structurally damaged and one engine stopped but it was recovered to a nearby airport. The Investigation noted that the collision had occurred in an area well known for glider activity in which transport aircraft frequently avoided glider collisions using ATC traffic information or by following TCAS RAs. The glider was being flown by a visitor to the area with its transponder intentionally switched off to conserve battery power.)
  • A320, en-route, northeast of Granada Spain, 2017 (On 21 February 2017, an Airbus A320 despatched with the APU inoperative experienced successive failures of both air conditioning and pressurisation systems, the second of which occurred at FL300 and prompted the declaration of a MAYDAY and an emergency descent followed by an uneventful diversion to Alicante. The Investigation found that the cause of the dual failure was likely to have been the undetectable and undetected degradation of the aircraft bleed air regulation system and whilst noting a possibly contributory maintenance error recommended that a new scheduled maintenance task to check components in the aircraft type bleed system be established.)
  • B738, en-route, southern Austria, 2010 (On 9 May 2010, Boeing 737-800 being operated by Swedish operator Viking Airlines on a public transport charter flight from Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt to Manchester UK and which had earlier suffered a malfunction which affected the level of redundancy in the aircraft pressurisation system, experienced a failure of the single air conditioning pack in use when over southern Austria and an emergency descent and en route diversion to Vienna were made. There were no injuries to any of the 196 occupants.)

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