The Atmosphere (Physics for Aviation)


Aviation is so dependent upon that category of fluids called gases and the effect of forces and pressures acting upon gases that a discussion of the subject of the atmosphere is important to the persons maintaining and repairing aircraft.

Data available about the atmosphere may determine whether a flight will succeed, or whether it will even become airborne. The various components of the air around the earth, the changes in temperatures and pressures at different levels above the earth, the properties of weather encountered by aircraft in flight, and many other detailed data are considered in the preparation of flight plans.

Pascan and Torricelli have been credited with developing the barometer, an instrument for measuring atmospheric pressure. The results of their experiments are still used today with very little improvement in design or knowledge. They determined that air has weight which changes as altitude is changed with respect to sea level. Today scientists are also interested in how the atmosphere affects the performance of the aircraft and its equipment.

Composition of the Atmosphere

The atmosphere is a complex and ever changing mixture. Its ingredients vary from place to place and from day to day. In addition to a number of gases, it contains quantities of foreign matter such as pollen, dust, bacteria, soot, volcanic ash, spores, and dust from outer space. The composition of the air remains almost constant from sea level up to its highest level, but its density diminishes rapidly with altitude. Six miles up, for example, it is too thin to support respiration, and 12 miles up, there is not enough oxygen to support combustion, except in some specially designed turbine engine powered airplanes. At a point several hundred miles above the earth, some gas particles spray out into space, some are dragged by gravity and fall back into the ocean of air below, while others never return. Physicists disagree as to the boundaries of the outer fringes of the atmosphere. Some think it begins 240 miles above the earth and extends to 400 miles; others place its lower edge at 600 miles and its upper boundary at 6,000 miles.

There are also certain nonconformities at various levels. Between 12 and 30 miles, high solar ultraviolet radiation reacts with oxygen molecules to produce a thin curtain of ozone, a very poisonous gas without which life on earth could not exist. This ozone filters out a portion of the sun’s lethal ultraviolet rays, allowing only enough coming through to give us sunburn, kill bacteria, and prevent rickets. At 50 to 65 miles up, most of the oxygen molecules begin to break down under solar radiation into free atoms, and to form hydroxyl ions (OH) from water vapor. Also in this region, all the atoms become ionized.


Studies of the atmosphere have revealed that the temperature does not decrease uniformly with increasing altitude; instead it gets steadily colder up to a height of about 7 miles, where the rate of temperature change slows down abruptly and remains almost constant at −55° Centigrade (218° Kelvin) up to about 20 miles. Then the temperature begins to rise to a peak value of 77° Centigrade (350° Kelvin) at the 55 mile level. Thereafter it climbs steadily, reaching 2,270° Centigrade (2,543° Kelvin) at a height of 250 to 400 miles. From the 50 mile level upward, a man or any other living creature, without the protective cover of the atmosphere, would be broiled on the side facing the sun and frozen on the other.

The atmosphere is divided into concentric layers or levels. Transition through these layers is gradual and without sharply defined boundaries. However, one boundary, the tropopause, exists between the first and second layer. The tropopause is defined as the point in the atmosphere at which the decrease in temperature, with increasing altitude, abruptly ceases. The four atmosphere layers are the troposphere, stratosphere, ionosphere, and the exosphere. The upper portion of the stratosphere is often called the chemosphere or ozonosphere, and the exosphere is also known as the mesosphere.

The troposphere extends from the earth’s surface to about 35,000 ft at middle latitudes, but varies from 28,000 ft at the poles to about 54,000 ft at the equator. The troposphere is characterized by large changes in temperature and humidity and by generally turbulent conditions. Nearly all cloud formations are within the troposphere. Approximately three-fourths of the total weight of the atmosphere is within the troposphere. The stratosphere extends from the upper limits of the troposphere and the tropopause to an average altitude of 60 miles.

The ionosphere ranges from the 50-mile level to a level of 300 to 600 miles. Little is known about the characteristics of the ionosphere, but it is thought that many electrical phenomena occur there. Basically, this layer is characterized by the presence of ions and free electrons, and the ionization seems to increase with altitude and in successive layers.

The exosphere, or mesosphere, is the outer layer of the atmosphere. It begins at an altitude of 600 miles and extends to the limits of the atmosphere. In this layer, the temperature is fairly constant at 2,500° Kelvin, and propagation of sound is thought to be impossible due to lack of molecular substance.

Atmospheric Pressure

The human body is under pressure, since it exists at the bottom of a sea of air. This pressure is due to the weight of the atmosphere. On a standard day at sea level, if a 1-in2 column of air extending to the top of the atmosphere was weighed, it would weigh 14.7 lb. That is why standard day atmospheric pressure is said to be 14.7 pounds per square inch (14.7 psi).

Since atmospheric pressure at any altitude is due to the weight of air above it, pressure decreases with increased altitude. Obviously, the total weight of air above an area at 15,000 ft would be less than the total weight of the air above an area at 10,000 ft.

Atmospheric pressure is often measured by a mercury barometer. A glass tube somewhat over 30 inches in length is sealed at one end and then filled with mercury. It is then inverted and the open end placed in a dish of mercury. Immediately, the mercury level in the inverted tube will drop a short distance, leaving a small volume of mercury vapor at nearly zero absolute pressure in the tube just above the top of the liquid mercury column. Gravity acting on the mercury in the tube will try to make the mercury run out. Atmospheric pressure pushing down on the mercury in the open container tries to make the mercury stay in the tube. At some point these two forces (gravity and atmospheric pressure) will equilibrate out and the mercury will stabilize at a certain height in the tube. Under standard day atmospheric conditions, the air in a 1 square inch column extending to the top of the atmosphere would weigh 14.7 lb. A 1-in2 column of mercury, 29.92 inches tall, would also weigh 14.7 lb. That is why 14.7 psi is equal to 29.92 "Hg. Figure 1 demonstrates this point.

The Atmosphere (Physics for Aviation)
Figure 1. Atmospheric pressure as inches of mercury

A second means of measuring atmospheric pressure is with an aneroid barometer. This mechanical instrument is a much better choice than a mercury barometer for use on airplanes. Aneroid barometers, or altimeters, are used to indicate altitude in flight. The calibrations are made in thousands of feet rather than in psi or inches of mercury. For example, the standard pressure at sea level is 29.92 "Hg, or 14.7 psi. At 10,000 feet above sea level, standard pressure is 20.58 "Hg, or 10.10 psi. Altimeters are calibrated so that if the pressure exerted by the atmosphere is 10.10 psi, the altimeter will point to 10,000 ft. [Figure 2]

The Atmosphere (Physics for Aviation)
Figure 2. An airplane’s altimeter is an aneroid barometer

Atmospheric Density

Since both temperature and pressure decrease with altitude, it might appear that the density of the atmosphere would remain fairly constant with increased altitude. This is not true, however, because pressure drops more rapidly with increased altitude than does the temperature. The result is that density decreases with increased altitude.

By use of the general gas law, studied earlier, it can be shown that for a particular gas, pressure and temperature determine the density. Since standard pressure and temperatures have been associated with each altitude, the density of the air at these standard temperatures and pressures must also be considered standard. Thus, a particular atmospheric density is associated with each altitude. This gives rise to the expression “density altitude,” symbolized “Hd.” A density altitude of 15,000 ft is the altitude at which the density is the same as that considered standard for 15,000 ft. Remember, however, that density altitude is not necessarily true altitude. For example, on a day when the atmospheric pressure is higher than standard and the temperature is lower than standard, the density which is standard at 10,000 ft might occur at 12,000 ft. In this case, at an actual altitude of 12,000 ft, we have air that has the same density as standard air at 10,000 ft. Density altitude is a calculated altitude obtained by correcting pressure altitude for temperature.

Water Content of the Atmosphere

In the troposphere, the air is rarely completely dry. It contains water vapor in one of two forms: (1) fog or (2) water vapor. Fog consists of minute droplets of water held in suspension by the air. Clouds are composed of fog. The height to which some clouds extend is a good indication of the presence of water in the atmosphere almost up to the stratosphere. The presence of water vapor in the air is quite evident in Figure 3, with a military F-18 doing a high-speed fly-by at nearly Mach 1. The temperature and pressure changes that occur as the airplane approaches supersonic flight cause the water vapor in the air to condense and form the vapor cloud that is visible.

The Atmosphere (Physics for Aviation)
Figure 3. F-18 high-speed fly-by and a vapor cloud

As a result of evaporation, the atmosphere always contains some moisture in the form of water vapor. The moisture in the air is called the humidity of the air. Moisture does not consist of tiny particles of liquid held in suspension in the air as in the case of fog, but is an invisible vapor truly as gaseous as the air with which it mixes. Fog and humidity both affect the performance of an aircraft. In flight, at cruising power, the effects are small and receive no consideration. During takeoff, however, humidity has important effects. Two things are done to compensate for the effects of humidity on takeoff performance. Since humid air is less dense than dry air, the allowable takeoff gross weight of an aircraft is generally reduced for operation in areas that are consistently humid. Second, because the power output of reciprocating engines is decreased by humidity, the manifold pressure may need to be increased above that recommended for takeoff in dry air in order to obtain the same power output.

Engine power output is calculated on dry air. Since water vapor is incombustible, its pressure in the atmosphere is a total loss as far as contributing to power output. The mixture of water vapor and air is drawn through the carburetor, and fuel is metered into it as though it were all air. This mixture of water vapor, air, and fuel enters the combustion chamber where it is ignited. Since the water vapor will not burn, the effective fuel/air ratio is enriched and the engine operates as though it were on an excessively rich mixture. The resulting horsepower loss under humid conditions can therefore be attributed to the loss in volumetric efficiency due to displaced air, and the incomplete combustion due to an excessively rich fuel and air mixture.

The reduction in power that can be expected from humidity is usually given in charts in the flight manual. There are several types of charts in use. Some merely show the expected reduction in power due to humidity; others show the boost in manifold pressure necessary to restore full takeoff power.


The effect of fog on the performance of an engine is very noticeable, particularly on engines with high compression ratios. Normally, some detonation will occur during acceleration, due to the high BMEP, which stands for brake mean effective pressures, developed. However, on a foggy day it is difficult to cause detonation to occur. The explanation of this lies in the fact that fog consists of particles of water that have not vaporized. When these particles enter the cylinders, they absorb a tremendous amount of heat energy in the process of vaporizing. The temperature is thus lowered, and the decrease is sufficient to prevent detonation.

Fog will generally cause a decrease in horsepower output. However, with a supercharged engine, it will be possible to use higher manifold pressures without danger of detonation.

Absolute Humidity

Absolute humidity is the actual amount of the water vapor in a mixture of air and water. It is expressed either in grams per cubic meter or pounds per cubic foot. The amount of water vapor that can be present in the air is dependent upon the temperature and pressure. The higher the temperatures, the more water vapor the air is capable of holding, assuming constant pressure. When air has all the water vapor it can hold at the prevailing temperature and pressure, it is said to be saturated.

Relative Humidity

Relative humidity is the ratio of the amount of water vapor actually present in the atmosphere to the amount that would be present if the air were saturated at the prevailing temperature and pressure. This ratio is usually multiplied by 100 and expressed as a percentage. Suppose, for example, that a weather report includes the information that the temperature is 75 °F and the relative humidity is 56 percent. This indicates that the air holds 56 percent of the water vapor required to saturate it at 75 °F. If the temperature drops and the absolute humidity remain constant, the relative humidity will increase. This is because less water vapor is required to saturate the air at the lower temperature.

Dew Point

The dew point is the temperature to which humid air must be cooled at constant pressure to become saturated. If the temperature drops below the dew point, condensation occurs. People who wear eyeglasses have experience going from cold outside air into a warm room and having moisture collect quickly on their glasses. This happens because the glasses were below the dew point temperature of the air in the room. The air immediately in contact with the glasses was cooled below its dew point temperature, and some of the water vapor was condensed out. This principle is applied in determining the dew point. A vessel is cooled until water vapor begins to condense on its surface. The temperature at which this occurs is the dew point.

Vapor Pressure

Vapor pressure is the portion of atmospheric pressure that is exerted by the moisture in the air, which is expressed in tenths of an inch of mercury. The dew point for a given condition depends on the amount of water pressure present; thus, a direct relationship exists between the vapor pressure and the dew point.

Standard Atmosphere

If the performance of an aircraft is computed, either through flight tests or wind tunnel tests, some standard reference condition must be determined first in order to compare results with those of similar tests. The conditions in the atmosphere vary continuously, and it is generally not possible to obtain exactly the same set of conditions on two different days or even on two successive flights. For this reason, a set group of standards must be used as a point of reference. The set of standard conditions presently used in the United States is known as the U.S. Standard Atmosphere.

The standard atmosphere approximates the average conditions existing at 40° latitude, and is determined on the basis of the following assumptions. The standard sea level conditions are:

Pressure at 0 altitude (P0) = 29.92 "Hg
Temperature at 0 altitude (T0) = 15 °C or 59 °F
Gravity at 0 altitude (G0) = 32.174 fps/s

The U.S. Standard Atmosphere is in agreement with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Standard Atmosphere over their common altitude range. The ICAO Standard Atmosphere has been adopted as standard by most of the principal nations of the world.

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