Aircraft Reciprocating Engine Cooling Systems | Aircraft Systems

Aircraft Reciprocating Engine Cooling Systems

Excessive heat is always undesirable in both reciprocating and turbine aircraft engines. If means were not available for its control or elimination, major damage or complete engine failure would occur. Although the vast majority of reciprocating engines are air cooled, some diesel liquid-cooled engines are being made available for light aircraft. In a liquid-cooled engine, around the cylinder are water jackets, in which liquid coolant is circulated and the coolant takes away the excess heat. The excess heat is then dissipated by a heat exchanger or radiator using air flow. Turbine engines use secondary airflow to cool the inside components and many of the exterior components.

An internal-combustion engine is a heat machine that converts chemical energy in the fuel into mechanical energy at the crankshaft. It does not do this without some loss of energy, however, and even the most efficient aircraft engines may waste 60 to 70 percent of the original energy in the fuel. Unless most of this waste heat is rapidly removed, the cylinders may become hot enough to cause complete engine failure. Excessive heat is undesirable in any internal-combustion engine for three principal reasons:
  1. It affects the behavior of the combustion of the fuel/ air charge.
  2. It weakens and shortens the life of engine parts.
  3. It impairs lubrication.

If the temperature inside the engine cylinder is too great, the fuel-air mixture is preheated, and combustion occurs before the desired time. Since premature combustion causes detonation, knocking, and other undesirable conditions, there must be a way to eliminate heat before it causes damage.

One gallon of aviation gasoline has enough heat value to boil 75 gallons of water; thus, it is easy to see that an engine that burns 4 gallons of fuel per minute releases a tremendous amount of heat. About one-fourth of the heat released is changed into useful power. The remainder of the heat must be dissipated so that it is not destructive to the engine. In a typical aircraft powerplant, half of the heat goes out with the exhaust and the other is absorbed by the engine. Circulating oil picks up part of this soaked-in heat and transfers it to the airstream through the oil cooler. The engine cooling system takes care of the rest. Cooling is a matter of transferring the excess heat from the cylinders to the air, but there is more to such a job than just placing the cylinders in the airstream. A cylinder on a large engine is roughly the size of a gallon jug. Its outer surface, however, is increased by the use of cooling fins so that it presents a barrel-sized exterior to the cooling air. Such an arrangement increases the heat transfer by radiation. If too much of the cooling fin area is broken off, the cylinder cannot cool properly, and a hotspot develops. Therefore, cylinders are normally replaced if a specified number of square inches of fins are missing.

Cowling and baffles are designed to force air over the cylinder cooling fins. [Figure 1] The baffles direct the air close around the cylinders and prevent it from forming hot pools of stagnant air while the main streams rush by unused. Blast tubes are built into the baffles to direct jets of cooling air onto the rear spark plug elbows of each cylinder to prevent overheating of ignition leads.

reciprocating Engine Cooling Systems
Figure 1. Cylinder baffle and deflector system

An engine can have an operating temperature that is too low. For the same reasons that an engine is warmed up before takeoff, it is kept warm during flight. Fuel evaporation and distribution and oil circulation depend on an engine being kept at its optimum operating temperature. The aircraft engine has temperature controls that regulate air circulation over the engine. Unless some controls are provided, the engine could overheat on takeoff and get too cold in high altitude, high-speed and low-power letdowns.

The most common means of controlling cooling is the use of cowl flaps. [Figure 2] These flaps are opened and closed by electric motor-driven jackscrews, by hydraulic actuators, or manually in some light aircraft. When extended for increased cooling, the cowl flaps produce drag and sacrifice streamlining for the added cooling. On takeoff, the cowl flaps are opened only enough to keep the engine below the red-line temperature. Heating above the normal range is allowed so that drag is as low as possible. During ground operations, the cowl flaps should be opened wide since drag does not matter and cooling needs to be set at maximum. Cowl flaps are used mostly with older aircraft and radial engine installations.

reciprocating Engine Cooling Systems
Figure 2. Regulating the cooling airflow

Some aircraft use augmentors to provide additional cooling airflow. [Figure 3] Each nacelle has two pairs of tubes running from the engine compartment to the rear of the nacelle. The exhaust collectors feed exhaust gas into the inner augmentor tubes. The exhaust gas mixes with air that has passed over the engine and heats it to form a high-temperature, low-pressure, jet-like exhaust. This low-pressure area in the augmentors draws additional cooling air over the engine. Air entering the outer shells of the augmentors is heated through contact with the augmentor tubes but is not contaminated with exhaust gases. The heated air from the shell goes to the cabin heating, defrosting, and anti-icing system.

reciprocating Engine Cooling Systems
Figure 3. Augmentor

Augmentors use exhaust gas velocity to cause airflow over the engine so that cooling is not entirely dependent on the prop wash. Vanes installed in the augmentors control the volume of air. These vanes are usually left in the trail position to permit maximum flow. They can be closed to increase the heat for cabin or anti-icing use or to prevent the engine from cooling too much during descent from altitude. In addition to augmentors, some aircraft have residual heat doors or nacelle flaps that are used mainly to let the retained heat escape after engine shutdown. The nacelle flaps can be opened for more cooling than that provided by the augmentors. A modified form of the previously described augmentor cooling system is used on some light aircraft. [Figure 4] Augmentor systems are not used much on modern aircraft.

reciprocating Engine Cooling Systems
Figure 4. Engine cooling and exhaust system

As shown in Figure 4, the engine is pressure cooled by air taken in through two openings in the nose cowling, one on each side of the propeller spinner. A pressure chamber is sealed off on the top side of the engine with baffles properly directing the flow of cooling air to all parts of the engine compartment. Warm air is drawn from the lower part of the engine compartment by the pumping action of the exhaust gases through the exhaust ejectors. This type of cooling system eliminates the use of controllable cowl flaps and assures adequate engine cooling at all operating speeds.