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Aircraft Pressurisation Systems

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Article Information
Category: Flight Technical Flight Technical
Content source: SKYbrary About SKYbrary
Content control: SKYbrary About SKYbrary

Definition

A system which ensures the comfort and safety of crew and passengers by controlling the cabin pressure and the exchange of air from the inside of the aircraft to the outside.

Discussion

Aircraft engines become more efficient with increase in altitude, burning less fuel for a given airspeed. In addition, by flying above weather and associated turbulence, the flight is smoother and the aircraft less fatigued. Crews will therefore normally fly as close to the aircraft’s Cruise Ceiling as they can depending on flight rules and any other constraints such as the aircraft oxygen system. In order to be able to fly at high attitudes, the aircraft needs to be pressurised so that the crew and passengers can breathe without the need for supplemental oxygen.

The cabin and cargo holds (or baggage compartments) on most aircraft are contained within a sealed unit which is capable of containing air under pressure higher than the Ambient Pressure outside of the aircraft. Bleed Air from the turbine engines is used to pressurise the cabin and air is released from the cabin by an Outflow Valve. By using a cabin pressure regulator, to manage the flow of air through the outflow valve, the pressure within the aircraft can be increased or decreased as required, either to maintain a set Differential Pressure or a set Cabin Altitude.

In practice, as an aircraft climbs, for the comfort of the passengers, the pressurisation system will gradually increase the cabin altitude and the differential pressure at the same time. If the aircraft continues to climb once the maximum differential pressure is reached, the differential pressure will be maintained while the cabin altitude climbs. The maximum cruise altitude will be limited by the need to keep the cabin altitude at or below 8,000 ft.

A safety valve:

  • acts as a relief valve, releasing air from the cabin to prevent the cabin pressure from exceeding the maximum differential pressure,
  • acts a vacuum relief valve, allowing air into the cabin when the ambient pressure exceeds the cabin pressure, and
  • acts as a dump valve, allowing the crew to dump cabin air manually.

A Cabin Altimeter, Differential Pressure Gauge, and Cabin Rate of Climb gauge help the crew to monitor the aircraft pressurisation.

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Accident & Incidents

Events held on the SKYbrary A&I database which include reference to the air conditioning system include:

  • B734, en-route, east northeast of Tanegashima Japan, 2015 (On 30 June 2015, both bleed air supplies on a Boeing 737-400 at FL370 failed in quick succession resulting in the loss of all pressurisation and, after making an emergency descent to 10,000 feet QNH, the flight was continued to the planned destination, Kansai. The Investigation found that both systems failed due to malfunctioning pre-cooler control valves and that these malfunctions were due to a previously identified risk of premature deterioration in service which had been addressed by an optional but “recommended” Service Bulletin which had not been taken up by the operator of the aircraft involved.)
  • B764, en-route, Audincourt France, 2017 (On 23 August 2017, a Boeing 767-400ER which had departed Zurich for a transatlantic crossing experienced a problem with cabin pressurisation as the aircraft approached FL 100 and levelled off to run the applicable checklist. However, despite being unable to confirm that the pressurisation system was functioning normally, the climb was then re-commenced resulting in a recurrence of the same problem and a MAYDAY emergency descent from FL 200. The Investigation found that an engineer had mixed up which pressurisation system valve was to be de-activated before departure and that the flight crew decision to continue the climb had been risky.)
  • B738, en-route, southern Austria, 2010 (On 9 May 2010, Boeing 737-800 being operated by Swedish operator Viking Airlines on a public transport charter flight from Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt to Manchester UK and which had earlier suffered a malfunction which affected the level of redundancy in the aircraft pressurisation system, experienced a failure of the single air conditioning pack in use when over southern Austria and an emergency descent and en route diversion to Vienna were made. There were no injuries to any of the 196 occupants.)
  • RJ1H, en-route, South West of Stockholm Sweden, 2007 (On 22 March 2007, climbing out of Stockholm Sweden, the crew of a Malmö Aviation Avro RJ100 failed to notice that the aircraft was not pressurised until cabin crew advised them of automatic cabin oxygen mask deployment.)
  • B738, en-route, near Sydney Australia 2018 (On 12 July 2018, a Boeing 737-800 was climbing through FL135 soon after takeoff from Sydney with First Officer line training in progress when the cabin altitude warning horn sounded because both air conditioning packs had not been switched on. The Captain took control and descended the aircraft to FL100 until the situation had been normalised and the intended flight was completed. The Investigation noted that although both pilots were experienced in command on other aircraft types, both had limited time on the 737 and concluded that incorrect system configuration was a consequence of procedures and checklists not being managed appropriately.)

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