A radio altimeter, or radar altimeter, is used to measure the distance from the aircraft to the terrain directly beneath it. It is used primarily during instrument approach and low level or night flight below 2500 feet. The radio altimeter supplies the primary altitude information for landing decision height. It incorporates an adjustable altitude bug that creates a visual or aural warning to the pilot when the aircraft reaches that altitude. Typically, the pilot will abort a landing if the decision height is reached and the runway is not visible.
Using a transceiver and a directional antenna, a radio altimeter broadcasts a carrier wave at 4.3 GHz from the aircraft directly toward the ground. The wave is frequency modulated at 50 MHz and travels at a known speed. It strikes surface features and bounces back toward the aircraft where a second antenna receives the return signal. The transceiver processes the signal by measuring the elapsed time the signal traveled and the frequency modulation that occurred. The display indicates height above the terrain also known as above ground level (AGL). [Figure 11-140]
A radar altimeter is more accurate and responsive than an air pressure altimeter for AGL information at low altitudes. The transceiver is usually located remotely from the indicator. Multifunctional and glass cockpit displays typically integrate decision height awareness from the radar altimeter as a digital number displayed on the screen with a bug, light, or color change used to indicate when that altitude is reached. Large aircraft may incorporate radio altimeter information into a ground proximity warning system (GPWS) which aurally alerts the crew of potentially dangerous proximity to the terrain below the aircraft. A decision height window (DH) displays the radar altitude on the EADI in Figure 11-141.