Ever wonder how pilots control the altitude of airplanes? Commercial airplanes fly at an altitude of roughly 30,000 feet. At high altitudes such as this, the air is thinner. Thin air creates less drag, allowing airplanes to fly longer distances while conserving their fuel. But pilots must ascend to achieve this cruising altitude.
The throttle doesn’t control the airplane’s altitude. Pilots can adjust the throttle to change the airplane’s speed, but they have to rely on other control methods to change the airplane’s altitude.
Within the cockpit is a flight instrument that provides information about the airplane’s altitude. Known as an altimeter, it displays the current above-sea-level altitude based on air pressure. The air pressure decreases as the airplane’s altitude increases. Altimeters leverage this information to provide pilots with the airplane’s current altitude.
Pilots can manually control the airplane’s altitude via a control stock known as a yoke. Pulling back on the yoke will raise the airplane’s nose, allowing it to ascend. Pushing forward on the yoke, in comparison, will lower the airplane’s nose, allowing it to descend.
The yoke works in conjunction with control surfaces known as elevators. Located on the trailing edge of the tail assembly, elevators offer pitch control. They are hinged surfaces that change in response to the yoke. As pilots pull back or push forward on the yoke, the elevators’ angle will change. In turn, the airplane will either ascend or descend.
Pilots may use autopilot to control the airplane’s altitude. Autopilot is a common feature with most commercial airplanes. Rather than manually controlling the altitude, as well as the direction, in which the airplane is flying, pilots can activate autopilot.
Autopilot will handle the airplane’s altitude. Pilots can enter the desired altitude, and the airplane’s autopilot system will do the rest. It will engage the airplane’s elevators to achieve the targeted altitude for which the autopilot has been set.
The Impact of Weather
It’s important to note that weather conditions can affect an airplane’s altitude. Turbulence, for instance, is caused by atmospheric disturbances. It can disrupt the airplane’s flight path. Pilots must respond by adjusting their control inputs and, at times, changing the airplane’s altitude to find smoother air with less turbulence.
Airplanes feature several control surfaces, one of the most important being elevators. Elevators are hinge-like surfaces that provide pitch control. They will change the airplane’s pitch. As the pitch changes, so will the airplane’s altitude.