Radio Altitude

Altitude has always been a no. 1 concern of aviators. Even in the worst case, if an aircraft had enough altitude, a safe landing could be planned and carried out. Pressure-sensitive altimeters have always been the instrument of choice to provide flight crews with their critical data. Barometric altimeters per regulation have to be accurate within a range of 8 to 75 metres depending on surrounding pressure altitude. The fact that this device is sensitive to changes in pressure referenced to a sea level environment make it blind to the rise of mountain ranges or other obstacles to the flight path and with a 6-metre accuracy at sea level, would most likely make a precision landing with sole dependency on this device a bumpy situation. In fact changes in atmospheric pressure from one side of an airport to another can provide a noticeable altitude error.

The radio altimeter sometimes referred to as a radar altimeter is designed to provide an accurate reference, in some cases within 1 metre, of the aircraft above the ground. In most cases, in general, and commercial aviation this device is operational up to 760 metres above ground level (AGL).

Although a valuable stand-alone information source, radio altitude can also be supplied to ground proximity warning systems (GPWS) or terrain awareness and warning systems (TAWS). In addition, information is often supplied to flight guidance systems to enhance flight deck visual cues used by the flight crew during take-off, instrument landings, or go around conditions. In many cases radio altimeter systems will also provide information to alter gain authority in automatic flight controls plus it is a primary sensor in the control of auto landing systems. Radio altitude may even be used by airframe systems to trigger landing gear warnings or even control systems that have an altitude stipulation.

How it operates

A receiver-transmitter (RT) working in conjunction with separate transmit and receive antennas makes up the majority of the system hardware. Operation requires the RT unit to send a signal to the transmit antenna which is then directed to the ground. When the signal hits the ground it is reflected back up to the receive antenna. The RT then performs a time calculation to determine the distance, as the altitude of the aircraft is proportional to the time required for the transmitted signal to make the round trip.

The frequency modulated (FM) signal produced by the RT unit is not tuneable, at least from the flight deck. In fact, the operating frequency range is 4,250 to 4,350 MHz. The basis for the calculation is predicated on the stipulation that a transmitted 4,300 MHz signal will return as a 4,300 MHz signal, but during the time it takes for the signal to travel to the ground and back the transmitter frequency has increased. The difference between the transmission and receiver frequencies is directly proportional to the height of the aircraft above the ground at a rate of 40 Hz per metre. A customised pre-set is fitted to the system to enable the radio altimeter to be installed in a wide range of aircraft where the height above the ground where touchdown occurs can be selected. This point is often calculated as when the main wheels contact the runway. Often there are no controls for the radio altimeter other than a circuit breaker. The system may become operational as soon as aircraft power is supplied. In many cases, it is considered a prudent maintenance practice to deactivate this system prior to conducting most airframe maintenance with electrical power. In some aircraft installations a weight off wheels circuit will arm the radio altimeter transmitter once the aircraft is in flight.

A test feature is included and will provide the flight crew with an indication regarding the operational status and in some cases the accuracy of the radio altimeter. This test will not check the operation of the two antennas or the condition of the transmission lines.

Flight deck displays of radio altitude are also varied. Some systems have a stand-alone instrument while in other cases height above ground level can be displayed on an attitude indicator or an electronic flight instrument.


Century Avionics, the largest privately owned avionics facility in South Africa, was formed in 1978 and is based at Lanseria International Airport. Century Avionics specialises in general avionics sales, installations, maintenance, support and modifications through our design organisation for certified and non-certified aircraft. We are at the cutting edge of aviation technology and are informed on what is happening in the industry both locally and internationally. Century Avionics boasts a host of mainstream and specialised dealerships.

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