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.
Depending on the engine manufacturer, all of these arrangements can be designed to utilize spark or compression ignition, and operate on either a two- or four-stroke cycle.
In a two-stroke engine, the conversion of chemical energy into mechanical energy occurs over a two-stroke operating cycle. The intake, compression, power, and exhaust processes occur in only two strokes of the piston rather than the more common four strokes. Because a two-stroke engine has a power stroke each revolution of the crankshaft, it typically has higher power-to-weight ratio than a comparable four-stroke engine. Due to the inherent inefficiency and disproportionate emissions of the earliest designs, use of the two-stroke engine has been limited in aviation.
- The intake stroke begins as the piston starts its downward travel. When this happens, the intake valve opens and the fuel/air mixture is drawn into the cylinder.
These engines have also gained a toehold in the retrofit market with a supplemental type certificate (STC) to re- engine the Cessna 172 models and the Piper PA-28 family. The jet-fueled piston engines technology has continued to progress and a full authority digital engine control (FADEC, discussed more fully later in the chapter) is standard on such equipped aircraft which minimizes complication of engine control. By 2007, various jet-fueled piston aircraft had logged well over 600,000 hours of service.