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A pitot-static system is a system of pressure-sensitive instruments that is most often used in aviation to determine an aircraft's airspeed, Mach number, altitude, and altitude trend. A pitot-static system generally consists of a pitot tube, a static port, and the pitot-static instruments. This equipment is used to measure the forces acting on a vehicle as a function of the temperature, density, pressure and viscosity of the fluid in which it is operating. Other instruments that might be connected are air data computers, flight data recorders, altitude encoder, cabin pressurization controllers, and various airspeed switches. Errors in pitot-static system readings can be extremely dangerous as the information obtained from the pitot static system, such as altitude, is often critical to a successful flight. Several commercial airline disasters have been traced to a failure of the pitot-static system.
Diagram of a pitot-static system including the pitot tube, pitot-static instruments and static port

Pitot-static pressure

The pitot-static system of instruments uses the principle of air pressure gradient. It works by measuring pressures or pressure differences and using these values to assess the speed and altitude. These pressures can be measured either from the static port (static pressure) or the pitot tube (pitot pressure). The static pressure is used in all measurements, while the pitot pressure is only used to determine airspeed.

Pitot pressure

The pitot pressure is obtained from the pitot tube. The pitot pressure is a measure of ram air pressure (the dynamic air pressure created by vehicle motion or the air ramming into the tube), which, under ideal conditions, is equal to stagnation pressure. The pitot tube is most often located on the wing or front section of an aircraft, facing forward, where its opening is exposed to the relative wind. By situating the pitot tube in such a location, the ram air pressure is more accurately measured since it will be less distorted by the aircraft's structure. When airspeed increases, the ram air pressure is increased, which can be translated by the airspeed indicator.

Static pressure

The static pressure is obtained through a static port. The static port is most often a flush-mounted hole on the fuselage of an aircraft, and is located where it can access the air flow in a relatively undisturbed area. Some aircraft may have a single static port, while others may have more than one. In situations where an aircraft has more than one static port, there is usually one located on each side of the fuselage. With this positioning, an average pressure can be taken, which allows for more accurate readings in specific flight situations. An alternative static port may be located inside the cabin of the aircraft as a backup for when the external static port(s) are blocked. A pitot-static tube effectively integrates the static ports into the pitot probe. It incorporates a second coaxial tube (or tubes) with pressure sampling holes on the sides of the probe, outside the direct airflow, to measure the static pressure.

Multiple pressure

Some pitot-static systems incorporate single probes that contain multiple pressure-transmitting ports that allow for the sensing of air pressure, angle of attack, and angle of sideslip data. Depending on the design, such air data probes may be referred to as 5-hole or 7-hole air data probes. Differential pressure sensing techniques can used to produce angle of attack and angle of sideslip indications.

Pitot-static instruments

Airspeed indicator diagram showing pressure sources from both the pitot tube and static port
The pitot-static system obtains pressures for interpretations by the pitot-static instruments. While the explanations below explain traditional, mechanical instruments, many modern aircraft use air data computers (ADC) to calculate airspeed, rate of climb, altitude and mach number. Two ADCs receive total and static pressure from independent pitot tubes and static ports, and the aircraft's flight data computer compares the information from both computers and checks one against the other. There are also "standby instruments", which are back-up pneumatic instruments employed in the case of problems with the primary instruments.

Airspeed indicator

The airspeed indicator is the only instrument that uses the ram pressure from the pitot tube. The airspeed indicator is connected to both the ram and static pressure sources. The greater the difference between the ram pressure and the static pressure, the higher the airspeed reported. A traditional mechanical airspeed indicator contains a pressure diaphragm that is connected to the pitot tube. The case around the diaphragm is airtight and is vented to the static port. The higher the speed, the higher the ram pressure, the more pressure exerted on the diaphragm, and the larger the needle movement through the mechanical linkage.
Diagram of an altimeter


The pressure altimeter, also known as the barometric altimeter, is used to determine changes in air pressure that occur as the aircraft's altitude changes. Pressure altimeters must be calibrated prior to flight to register the pressure as an altitude above sea level. The instrument case of the altimeter is airtight and has a vent to the static port. Inside the instrument, there is a sealed aneroid barometer. As pressure in the case decreases, the internal barometer expands, which is mechanically translated into a determination of altitude. The reverse is true when descending from higher to lower altitudes.


Aircraft designed to operate at transonic or supersonic speeds will incorporate a machmeter. The machmeter is used to show the ratio of true airspeed in relation to the speed of sound. Most supersonic aircraft are limited as to the maximum Mach number they can fly, which is known as the "Mach limit". The Mach number is displayed on a machmeter as a decimal fraction.

A vertical airspeed indicator

Vertical airspeed indicator

The variometer, also known as the vertical speed indicator (VSI) or the vertical velocity indicator (VVI), is the pitot-static instrument used to determine whether or not an aircraft is flying in level flight. The vertical airspeed specifically shows the rate of climb or the rate of descent, which is measured in feet per minute or meters per second. The vertical airspeed is measured through a mechanical linkage to a diaphragm located within the instrument. The area surrounding the diaphragm is vented to the static port through a calibrated leak (which also may be known as a "restricted diffuser"). When the aircraft begins to increase altitude, the diaphragm will begin to contract at a rate faster than that of the calibrated leak, causing the needle to show a positive vertical speed. The reverse of this situation is true when an aircraft is descending. The calibrated leak varies from model to model, but the average time for the diaphragm to equalize pressure is between 6 and 9 seconds.

Pitot-static errors

There are several situations that can affect the accuracy of the pitot-static instruments. Some of these involve failures of the pitot-static system itself—which may be classified as "system malfunctions"—while others are the result of faulty instrument placement or other environmental factors—which may be classified as "inherent errors".

System malfunctions

Blocked pitot tube

A blocked pitot tube is a pitot-static problem that will only affect airspeed indicators. A blocked pitot tube will cause the airspeed indicator to register an increase in airspeed when the aircraft climbs, even though indicated airspeed is constant. This is caused by the pressure in the pitot system remaining constant when the atmospheric pressure (and static pressure) are decreasing. In reverse, the airspeed indicator will show a decrease in airspeed when the aircraft descends. The pitot tube is susceptible to becoming clogged by ice, water, insects or some other obstruction. For this reason, aviation regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recommend that the pitot tube be checked for obstructions prior to any flight. To prevent icing, many pitot tubes are equipped with a heating element. A heated pitot tube is required in all aircraft certificated for instrument flight.

Blocked static port

A blocked static port is a more serious situation because it affects all pitot-static instruments. One of the most common causes of a blocked static port is airframe icing. A blocked static port will cause the altimeter to freeze at a constant value, the altitude at which the static port became blocked. The vertical speed indicator will become frozen at zero and will not change at all, even if vertical airspeed increases or decreases. The airspeed indicator will reverse the error that occurs with a clogged pitot tube and cause the airspeed be read less than it actually is as the aircraft climbs. When the aircraft is descending, the airspeed will be over-reported. In most aircraft with unpressurized cabins, an alternative static source is available and can be toggled from within the cockpit of the airplane.

Inherent errors

Inherent errors may fall into several categories, each affecting different instruments. Density errors affect instruments reporting airspeed and altitude. This type of error is caused by variations of pressure and temperature in the atmosphere. A compressibility error occurs when the air entering the pitot tube becomes less able to resist compression. At higher altitudes, the air is less dense and therefore more easily compressed; likewise, the aircraft's forward motion itself compresses the air around the aircraft. Such conditions become significant at altitudes above and at airspeeds greater than . This error affects the airspeed indicator and causes a reading that is lower than the actual true airspeed (TAS) in an environment of increasing altitude. Hysteresis is an error that is caused by mechanical properties of the aneroid capsules located within the instruments. These capsules, used to determine pressure differences, have physical properties that resist change by retaining a given shape, even though the external forces may have changed. Reversal errors are caused by a false static pressure reading. This false reading may be caused by abnormally large changes in an aircraft's pitch. A large change in pitch will cause a momentary showing of movement in the opposite direction. Reversal errors primarily affect altimeters and vertical speed indicators.

Position errors

Another class of inherent errors is that of position error. A position error is produced by the aircraft's static pressure being different from the air pressure remote from the aircraft. This error is caused by the air flowing past the static port at a speed different from the aircraft's true airspeed. Position errors may provide positive or negative errors, depending on one of several factors. These factors include airspeed, angle of attack, aircraft weight, acceleration, aircraft configuration, and in the case of helicopters, rotor downwash. There are two categories of position errors, which are "fixed errors" and "variable errors". Fixed errors are defined as errors which are specific to a particular make of aircraft. Variable errors are caused by external factors such as deformed panels obstructing the flow of air, or particular situations which may overstress the aircraft.

Pitot-static related disasters


  1. {{citeweb|url=|title=ASN Aircraft accident description Boeing 757-225 TC-GEN — Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic|accessdate=2007-01-07|}}}
  • Lawford. J. A. and Nippress, K. R. (1983). Calibration of Air-Data Systems and Flow Direction Sensors (AGARD AG-300 - Vol.1, AGARD Flight Test Techniques Series; R. W. Borek, ed.). Accessed via (PDF). Retrieved on 25 April 2008.
  • Kjelgaard, Scott O. (1988), Theoretical Derivation and Calibration Technique of a Hemispherical-Tipped Five-Hole Probe (NASA Technical Memorandum 4047).

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