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Let's say an airplane is climbing towards transition altitude (TA = 5000 ft), and it has it's altimeter set to QNH = 1030 hPa. The altimeter is a function of pressure and QNH: altitude = altimeter(pressure, QNH). Let's say P is a pressure at TA = 5000 ft when QNH = 1030 hPa (roughly 857.74 hPa) - so P is the pressure when the airplane reaches the transition altitude.

When it reaches TA, the altimeter setting is changed to 1013.25 hPa so the indicated altitude changes as well. With the same P and different QNH, the altimeter now shows roughly 4545.8 ft. Well, this is way below transition level and transition altitude, so the altimeter should be set back to QNH = 1030 hPa. But now it shows 5000 ft again, so let's set it to 1013.25 hPa. The altitude and QNH oscillates, because the input to the altimeter (QNH) is based on it's output (altitude).

The same thing happens on a horizontal edges of airspaces (changing from REG QNH to METAR QNH) and when descending towards transition level.

I assume that pilots change the altimeter setting to "just something". But how should a software calculating the indicated pressure altitude deal with this? The point of the software is to calculate events where QNH should be changed by a pilot. The software runs after the flight and has access to resources such as airspaces, transition altitudes, METARs, GPS and pressure during the flight, and so on.

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  • $\begingroup$ Ah, good ol' computers, they do exactly what you tell 'em to do, not what you want 'em to do... $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Jul 22 '20 at 14:04
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    $\begingroup$ "the altimeter now shows roughly 4545.8 ft". FALSE. The altimeter now shows roughly Flight Level 45, which cannot be compared directly to altitudes. Remember, when passing TA, you change the UNIT of measurement, not just the reference pressure. $\endgroup$ – expeditedescent Jul 22 '20 at 15:19
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    $\begingroup$ You could define a vertical movement state in your software, let it be either climbing, descending or level flight. If the state is climbing, once you change to QNE, you don't change back, even if you are briefly below transition level. $\endgroup$ – expeditedescent Jul 22 '20 at 15:28
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    $\begingroup$ When climbing through the TA, usually the pilot has an intention (e.g because of ATC instruction or clearance) to be above that TA, i.e. to climb to a certain flight level. For you computer pilot, the combination of the intention and the vertical position of the aircraft should drive the altimeter setting. $\endgroup$ – DeltaLima Jul 22 '20 at 16:18
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    $\begingroup$ From a computer standpoint, I would set QNE as you pass through the TA. If that means you are now at a "lower" flight level than the current altitude so be it. As you descend through the TL, set QNH. If that altitude is higher than the current flight level so be it. That is what pilots are going to do. ATC directs pilots to do this with their phraseology. "Climb FL50". or "Descend altitude 5,000 QNH 1030". $\endgroup$ – wbeard52 Jul 22 '20 at 16:57
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In Canada at least, you are supposed to make the change between QNH (alt setting) and QNE (standard pressure) while in QNE airspace, whether climbing or descending; that is, right after passing the transition altitude while climbing, or just before passing transition altitude while descending. The variable overlap zone you describe resulting from the change in barometric pressure is not critical since you are almost always just passing through on a climb or descent clearance to an altitude a couple thousand feet or more above or below. ATC sees your altitude in 100 ft increments as broadcast by your transponder, computed baro alt (transponder's pressure alt signal corrected for local baro pressure) when below the transition, then pressure alt when above, but they don't know or care what you are seeing on your altimeter while climbing through the transition as long as you level off where you are supposed to be.

So I would expect to see the altimeter setting change shortly after passing transition altitude when climbing, say within the next 500 to 1000 ft, but the pilot doesn't have to work out exactly what QNH altitude to observe to be able to make the switch right at transition alt. Shortly following is good enough and if you are in a climb to, say, FL100, if you forget to set to 1013.25 until the TA is 8000 ft, it's not that big a deal (nobody's going to know - except for the Flight Data Recorder, and your pilot monitor nanny software that is... lol). All that matters is that you level off at your cleared FL. ATC only sees your FL, or FL corrected internally to baro, on radar so the controller isn't interested in where you switch exactly while in a climb as long as you level at the correct FL, although you are supposed to do it in a timely way.

On a descent, with a TA of FL50, I would expect to see the change from QNE to QNH while still above the TFL, say between FL50 and 60. Even there, if you forgot to set to QNH until below FL50, if you are descending to a lower altitude, it's not critical as long as you level off at the cleared QNH altitude, monitoring software notwithstanding.

Note that Europe may have variations on this protocol, since in North America the transition level is FL180 everywhere except the high arctic (called the Standard Pressure Region in Canada), where the FLs start at the surface except where near airports.

This is the Canadian regulation on moving between Standard Pressure and Altimeter Setting zones:

Transition – CAR 602.37 – Altimeter Setting and Operating Procedures in Transition between Regions, specifies that except as otherwise authorized by ATC, aircraft progressing from one region to another shall make the change in the altimeter setting while within the standard pressure region prior to entering, or after leaving, the altimeter setting region. If the transition is to be made into the altimeter setting region while in level cruising flight, the pilot should obtain the current altimeter setting from the nearest station along the route of flight as far as practical before reaching the point at which the transition is to be made. When climbing from the altimeter setting region into the standard pressure region, pilots shall set their altimeters to standard pressure (29.92 inches of mercury or 1013.2 mbs) immediately after entering the standard pressure region. When descending into the altimeter setting region, pilots shall set their altimeters to the appropriate station altimeter setting immediately prior to descending into the altimeter setting region. Normally, the pilot will receive the appropriate altimeter setting as part of the ATC clearance prior to descent. If it is not incorporated in the clearance, it should be requested by the pilot.

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    $\begingroup$ "and ATC only sees your pressure altitude in 100 ft increments the entire time anyway." Additionally, the transponder always broadcasts the level as a flight level (reference 1013), regardless of the actual altimeter setting. It is then corrected on ATC end for flights below TA/TRL. So ATC will always see the correct level, no matter which QNH the pilot has selected. That's also how we can occasionally warn you of a possible wrong altimeter setting if you are flying a few hundred feet above or below cleared level. $\endgroup$ – expeditedescent Jul 22 '20 at 15:25
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks. This is not exactly a solution, but it helped. $\endgroup$ – Ondrej Telka Jul 22 '20 at 16:27
  • $\begingroup$ @expeditedescent is the QNH alt applicable relative to PA for a given altimeter setting co-displayed continuously with the FL on the screen or is it a selectable option, or do you just do a little mental calculation? $\endgroup$ – John K Jul 22 '20 at 16:40
  • $\begingroup$ @OndrejTelka "The point of the software is to calculate events where QNH should be changed by a pilot." is your question, and my answer is basically "(should be changed) shortly after while climbing,and shortly before while descending". What other information do you need? $\endgroup$ – John K Jul 22 '20 at 16:49
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    $\begingroup$ Bottom line is the software should expect the switch between QNE and QNH to occur while in QNE airspace, shortly after (while climbing) or before (while descending) through the transition, say within 15 sec. If you are looking for a hard value or tolerance, there isn't one really. It's kind of left to common sense. The 'grey zone" in question is usually just a short phase and is not important. If you were going to level at a FL that was just above the transition, or a QNH altitude just below it, you would make allowance for that and make the switch a little sooner than you otherwise might. $\endgroup$ – John K Jul 22 '20 at 17:28
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This is related to why there is always a buffer of at least 1000ft between the Transition Altitude and the Transition Level.

If you are at 4000ft and want to climb to FL070, then once you cross the TA at 5000ft, you set QNE and climb until your altimeter reads 7000. It does not matter whether the altimeter briefly changes to 4500 (or 5500) at the instant you cross the TA since that is below what you’re climbing to.

Ditto for setting QNH when descending through the TL.

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  • $\begingroup$ Seems the good answer, in addition TA/TL are not managed the same way in the US/Canada and in the rest of the world. In the rest of the world the altimeter is not set based on your actual altitude, but as soon as you are cleared to a level or to an altitude, so there is no "oscillation" problem around the TA. See this for when to change: "this is done irrespective of how far above or below the TL/TA you are at the time", but in relation with the intent, as DeltaLima commented below the question. $\endgroup$ – mins Jul 27 '20 at 17:17
  • $\begingroup$ @mins What do pilots elsewhere do if ATC stops their climb or hands them off before they pass TA? The US/CA way, we still have the correct QNH set. $\endgroup$ – StephenS Jul 28 '20 at 2:15
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    $\begingroup$ In non PAN-OPS method, ATC assigns a new altitude or level, the crew should uses the datum associated with the new clearance for altitude reportings. This means if ATC pauses a climb/descent using some altitude/level value, the datum can change, but if the pilot initiates the leveling, the datum is kept until ATC assigns a new vertical target. See scenario 3 here for forgetting to reset to QNE when initialy cleared to descend below TL but leveled by ATC before TL. Ultimately, the SOP can impose a specific procedure. $\endgroup$ – mins Jul 28 '20 at 11:14

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