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Altimetry Around the World:

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Jun 3, 2002
In reference to an article in Professional Pilot Magazine (Aug 2002) I’m looking for more information:

The article mentions that China and Russia use QFE altitude, that is, altimeter setting reference to airport elevation (where field elevation equals ZERO feet). The aircraft’s altimeter will read ZERO feet when it is on the ground.
1. Are China and Russia the only two countries that do this (as the article implies)?
2. I’ve also been told (by a usually reliable source) that American Airlines uses (or used to use) QFE altitude even in the United States. Any feedback on that statement?
3. Are China and Russia the only two countries that use METERS for altitude assignments (as the article implies)?

The article also talks about “transition altitude” (18,000 feet in the U.S. and Canada) being different in many countries and that it is listed on the Approach Charts, SID’s, STAR’s, and “some” enroute charts. Examples given are London 6000 feet, Germany 5000 feet, and the Netherlands 2000 feet.
1. Are these altitudes correct (2000 feet seems awfully low)?
2. Are these altitudes correct for the entire country per se, or do they change from airport to airport within the country?

Seems like mass confusion to me.

What happened to ICAO?

Thanks for the help.


I have flown in a good portion of the world and have not run into QFE. But I haven't flown into Russian or China. So I would suspect that the artical is correct there. Some time ago I was told by an American AL Captain, that they use QFE in all there operations. I have since heard that, that procedure has stopped being used.

As for Meters, haven't run across it yet, so artical may be correct. That may also be one of the reasons that Russian and China require national navigators for much of the airway systems. Besides the fact that a large portion of their ATC doesn't speak English.

Transition altitudes will vary from country to country. And from Airport to Airport. In some countries, the transition altitude is a set height above the airport.

Hope that answered some of your questions.
ICAO altimetry

QNH is known in the states as MSL or True altitude
QNE is Pressure altitude; in the case of ICAO always 29.92
QFE is Absolute altitude, or the altitude above the reporting point.

Often a Q setting is listed in the remarks section of the metar for KFHU-Fort Huachuca/Sierra Vista Municipal Airport-Libby Army Airfield, AZ.


You'd think with there being a set standard like ICAO, things would be simple but that would be too easy. I did a PPL/IR in the UK a few years back now and here are some of the differences.

GA airports use QFE when transitioning their airspace or operating in the traffic pattern.

On my IR checkride I had the chioce of setting the QNH or the QFE, but if you used the QFE you had to reset the QNH on going missed. Instant bust otherwise. Its been a while but I'm sure the tower gave me the QFE.

In most parts of Europe the transition altitude can be as low as 2000. Especially if you're close to a major airport. The airfield were I did my private was about 40m west of Heathrow and class A started at 2500'.

Hope this helps.
Russia and China are not the only ones. Several other countries like Krygystan, Turkmenistan, Kazakstan, Tajikystan, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Moldova, and the Ukraine to name a few, also use QFE. ICAO only applies to those nations that subscribe and the former Soviet Union did not, though countries like Romania and Bulgaria now use QNH altimeter settings and meters. We used to have to use a conversion chart becuase the controllers would clear you to "Flight level 10,100 meters" and that came out to something like 34,860 feet, so we'd fly 34,800 or 34,900. As far as the transition level goes, they do very country to country are published or given to you from the ATIS. It is tricky though as much of the area is mountainous with high MSL altitudes and if you don't get the QFE altimeter in until passing the transition altitude, you could find yourself below the assigned altitude already. We used to have the pilot not flying set the QFE altitude prior to desending so we had a heads up as to the altitude to level off. Another phenomenon you would see is an altimeter setting lower than the system could handle. In this case you could never get the altimeter to read zero on the ground, so we would have to ask for the QNH and the do mental math to add the field elevation to the altitude we were given in QFE. Now throw in that the Jepps are in feet with a little conversion on the side to meters, but its a challenge. Oh yeah, and the altimeter settings are in millibars not in. of Hg. Luckily ours has that on it. I hope this sheds some light on the issue for you. It is surely a challenge in that part of the world as controllers speak very little english, and use different altimeter settings and meters. It would be nice if we had a switch to convert the altimeter into meters with all the glass we have now days. Also if the altimeters would allow lower and higher settings than they do to beable to get a zero reading at an airport that is 2000' msl.

As moosetrack noted many countries in Middle East and former soviet union use meters and qfe. standardization is very lacking and this can be quite dangerous. I have been to kyrgystan twice this year. they clearly use qfe and this will be obvious as the airport is 2000msl so the altimeter will be something like 2792-- but both times they have given us qnh- say 1013 hp/ 2992 inches-- now the dangerous part is they give an altitude based off of qfe- for example on a 10 mile final they say descend to 700 meters( roughly 2100 feet). Hopefully if you arent too tired from flying all night you quickly realize that is equal to airport elevation and what they really mean is descend to 2100 above airport elevation( 4100). Bottom line is you need to spend a lot of time preparing for approach and never blindly follow atc- especially in south america and other countries with Mountains grande.
In addition to the above, in terms of ICAO standardization, the U.S. is about as non-standard as they come, so hard to complain about some other countries. Actually, China has switched over to Qnh at most of their airports (in the last year or so), but they still use meters for altitude reference and meters/second for wind speed, etc.
If I remember correctly, and I'm sure I don't, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia use QFE. Their transition altitude is 3,000 feet too which is kind of strange having an IAF at FL40.

Not true. They use QNH and feet for as long as I have been flying there. There transition altitude is much lower than ours, but they don't use QFE.

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