Most small aircraft are designed with reciprocating engines. The name is derived from the back-and-forth, or reciprocating, movement of the pistons which produces the mechanical energy necessary to accomplish work.
Driven by a revitalization of the general aviation (GA) industry and advances in both material and engine design, reciprocating engine technology has improved dramatically over the past two decades. The integration of computerized engine management systems has improved fuel efficiency, decreased emissions, and reduced pilot workload.
Reciprocating engines operate on the basic principle of converting chemical energy (fuel) into mechanical energy. This conversion occurs within the cylinders of the engine through the process of combustion. The two primary reciprocating engine designs are the spark ignition and the compression ignition. The spark ignition reciprocating engine has served as the powerplant of choice for many years. In an effort to reduce operating costs, simplify design, and improve reliability, several engine manufacturers are turning to compression ignition as a viable alternative. Often referred to as jet fuel piston engines, compression ignition engines have the added advantage of utilizing readily available and lower cost diesel or jet fuel.
The main mechanical components of the spark ignition and the compression ignition engine are essentially the same. Both use cylindrical combustion chambers and pistons that travel the length of the cylinders to convert linear motion into the rotary motion of the crankshaft. The main difference between spark ignition and compression ignition is the process of igniting the fuel. Spark ignition engines use a spark plug to ignite a pre-mixed fuel/air mixture. (Fuel/air mixture is the ratio of the “weight” of fuel to the “weight” of air in the mixture to be burned.) A compression ignition engine first compresses the air in the cylinder, raising its temperature to a degree necessary for automatic ignition when fuel is injected into the cylinder.
These two engine designs can be further classified as:
- Cylinder arrangement with respect to the crankshaft—radial, in-line, v-type, or opposed.
- Operating cycle—two or four.
- Method of cooling—liquid or air.
Radial engines were widely used during World War II and many are still in service today. With these engines, a row or rows of cylinders are arranged in a circular pattern around the crankcase. The main advantage of a radial engine is the favorable power-to-weight ratio. [Figure 6-1] In-line engines have a comparatively small frontal area, but their power-to-weight ratios are relatively low. In addition, the rearmost cylinders of an air-cooled, in-line engine receive very little cooling air, so these engines are normally limited to four or six cylinders. V-type engines provide more horsepower than in-line engines and still retain a small frontal area.
Learn more about aircraft and their systems with A Pilot’s Guide to Aircraft and Their Systems by ASA. Pilot-oriented rather than mechanic-oriented, this guide to aircraft systems is designed specifically to help general aviation pilots understand how aircraft systems work so that they can better use them in flight.