When filing a flight-plan for a long-haul high-altitude IFR flight, how do pilots select a specific cruising altitude? Typically in the range of 25,000 - 35,000 ft.

up vote 11 down vote accepted

As has been stated, ATC will assign you an altitude, taking into account your requested altitude, traffic conditions, and of course the FAR.

Peter's formulas will apply from a design standpoint. The aircraft designer will use something like that to calculate typical values, which will be included in the aircraft's operating handbook.

The table below is listed by pressure altitude and gross weight. At each combination there will be performance values such as:

  • Average N1 (for a turbine)
  • Max TAT for thrust rating
  • IAS Knots
  • Mach number
  • ISA fuel flow LB/HR/ENG
  • ISA TAS Knots

The flight distance will determine the approximate gross weight, which corresponds to an altitude and cruise speed that provide the best efficiency. Here is an example from a virtual 737 handbook, with the values I listed. The optimum performance is in blue. Higher gross weights have been removed for clarity.

737-800 Optimum Cruise Altitude Table

Airlines may have their own performance tables, choosing a custom balance of efficiency and speed. Dispatchers for the airline will take the flight information and decide on a cruising altitude for filing the flight plan, which the pilot will then receive. As you can see, as the aircraft burns fuel and gets lighter, it will be more efficient at higher altitudes. This is the step climb that Peter mentioned, where the aircraft will climb to higher altitudes as the flight progresses when they are cleared by ATC.

Modern planning systems can take into account weather factors such as winds aloft and turbulence to pick the most efficient route.

  • Good points. I'll only add that for airline ops (such as the 737 in your A) a dispatcher will do all of this work, not the pilot. I read the cruise altitude off of the dispatch release to see what my dispatcher filed and planned us at. – casey Apr 9 '14 at 21:14
  • 2
    Note that the winds aloft often override the (modest) effects of performance changes in altitude, since they typically increase in velocity as you increase altitude. Thus, with tailwinds, it often pays to operate as high as the airplane can (given constraints of climb capability, pressurization, service ceiling), and with headwinds at the lower end of the range of reasonable altitudes. It always seems to work out for me that in headwinds they exactly cancel, and the performance gain of flying higher is perfectly wiped out by the increase in headwind component ;) – RobP Apr 10 '14 at 4:56

I guess you know the FAR rules for picking discrete values.

When it comes to performance, with a jet you want to fly as high as possible. The only reason not to do so is total distance; on a short hop there is not enough flying time to climb all the way up.

The higher you fly (in the troposphere) the colder the air is, which makes the thermodynamic cycle of all air-breathing engines more efficient. Also, the air gets thinner, so your friction drag is reduced at the same TAS. The specifics depend on the thrust over airspeed, and generally you want to fly at a lift coefficient between $\sqrt{\frac13\cdot c_{D0}\cdot\pi\cdot AR\cdot\epsilon}$ and $\sqrt{c_{D0}\cdot\pi\cdot AR\cdot\epsilon}$, where $c_{D0}$ is the zero-lift drag and $AR$ the wing's aspect ratio.

The higher value is perfect for piston engines and props, and the lower one for turbojets (think fighter aircraft engine). With a turbofan you will be between both values. To yield more precise results, both formulas will be longer, but these are the major factors for optimum lift coefficient.

Since there is an optimum cl for maximum range, you might want to climb continuously during the flight to compensate for the lower mass (due to fuel burn) with lower air density, so in reality you adjust altitude in steps, in accordance with traffic control.

Cruise altitude may be assigned by ATC for separation (IFR especially, or in other controlled airspace -- since, in the US, these altitudes would be Class A and controlled airspace). For example, when you request a DUAT(S) briefing, it will usually give suggested ATC routing and also altitude assignments (along with what's most frequently used).

The altitude you request somewhat depends on aircraft performance, I would imagine, but obviously any ATC clearance must be adhered to unless amended. Hopefully one of the commercial pilots can fill in more of the blanks, though.

See also: Choosing an Appropriate Altitude

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