Aircraft Pneumatic Systems

Some aircraft manufacturers have equipped their aircraft with a high pressure pneumatic system (3,000 psi) in the past. The last aircraft to utilize this type of system was the Fokker F27.Such systems operate a great deal like hydraulic systems, except they employ air instead of a liquid for transmitting power. Pneumatic systems are sometimes used for:
  • Brakes
  • Opening and closing doors
  • Driving hydraulic pumps, alternators, starters, water injection pumps, etc.
  • Operating emergency devices

Both pneumatic and hydraulic systems are similar units and use confined fluids. The word confined means trapped or completely enclosed. The word fluid implies such liquids as water, oil, or anything that flows. Since both liquids and gases flow, they are considered as fluids; however, there is a great deal of difference in the characteristics of the two. Liquids are practically incompressible; a quart of water still occupies about a quart of space regardless of how hard it is compressed. But gases are highly compressible; a quart of air can be compressed into a thimbleful of space. In spite of this difference, gases and liquids are both fluids and can be confined and made to transmit power. The type of unit used to provide pressurized air for pneumatic systems is determined by the system’s air pressure requirements.

High Pressure Systems

For high-pressure systems, air is usually stored in metal bottles at pressures ranging from 1, 000 t o 3, 000 psi , depending on the particular system. [Figure 1] This type of air bottle has two valves, one of which is a charging valve. A ground-operated compressor can be connected to this valve to add air to the bottle. The other valve is a control valve. It acts as a shutoff valve, keeping air trapped inside the bottle until the system is operated.

Aircraft Hydraulic and Pneumatic Systems
Figure 1. Aircraft high-pressure pneumatic system

Although the high pressure storage cylinder is light in weight, it has a definite disadvantage Since the system cannot be recharged during flight, operation is limited by the small supply of bottled air. Such an arrangement cannot be used for the continuous operation of a system. Instead, the supply of bottled air is reserved for emergency operation of such systems as the landing gear or brakes. The usefulness of this type of system is increased, however, if other air-pressurizing units are added to the aircraft. [Figure 2]

Aircraft Hydraulic and Pneumatic Systems
Figure 2. Aircraft pneumatic brake system

Pneumatic System Components

Pneumatic systems are often compared to hydraulic systems, but such comparisons can only hold true in general terms. Pneumatic systems do not utilize reservoirs, hand pumps, accumulators, regulators, or engine-driven or electrically driven power pumps for building normal pressure. But similarities do exist in some components.

Air Compressors

On some aircraft, permanently installed air compressors have been added to recharge air bottles whenever pressure is used for operating a unit. Several types of compressors are used for this purpose. Some have two stages of compression, while others have three, depending on the maximum desired operating pressure.

Relief Valves

Relief valves are used in pneumatic systems to prevent damage. They act as pressure limiting units and prevent excessive pressures from bursting lines and blowing out seals.

Control Valves

Control valves are also a necessary part of a typical pneumatic system. Figure 3 illustrates how a valve is used to control emergency air brakes. The control valve consists of a three-port housing, two poppet valves, and a control lever with two lobes.

Aircraft Hydraulic and Pneumatic Systems
Figure 3. Pneumatic control valve

In Figure 3A, the control valve is shown in the off position. A spring holds the left poppet closed so that compressed air entering the pressure port cannot flow to the brakes. In Figure 3B, the control valve has been placed in the on position. One lobe of the lever holds the left poppet open, and a spring closes the right poppet. Compressed air now flows around the opened left poppet, through a drilled passage, and into a chamber below the right poppet. Since the right poppet is closed, the high-pressure air flows out of the brake port and into the brake line to apply the brakes.

To release the brakes, the control valve is returned to the off position. [Figure 3A] The left poppet now closes, stopping the flow of high-pressure air to the brakes. At the same time, the right poppet is opened, allowing compressed air in the brake line to exhaust through the vent port and into the atmosphere.

Check Valves

Check valves are used in both hydraulic and pneumatic systems. Figure 4 illustrates a flap-type pneumatic check valve. Air enters the left port of the check valve, compresses a light spring, forcing the check valve open and allowing air to flow out the right port. But if air enters from the right, air pressure closes the valve, preventing a flow of air out the left port. Thus, a pneumatic check valve is a one-direction flow control valve.

Aircraft Hydraulic and Pneumatic Systems
Figure 4. Flap-type pneumatic check valve


Restrictors are a type of control valve used in pneumatic systems. Figure 5 illustrates an orifice-type restrictor with a large inlet port and a small outlet port. The small outlet port reduces the rate of airflow and the speed of operation of an actuating unit.

Aircraft Hydraulic and Pneumatic Systems
Figure 5. Pneumatic orifice valve

Variable Restrictor

Another type of speed-regulating unit is the variable restrictor. [Figure 6] It contains an adjustable needle valve, which has threads around the top and a point on the lower end. Depending on the direction turned, the needle valve moves the sharp point either into or out of a small opening to decrease or increase the size of the opening. Since air entering the inlet port must pass through this opening before reaching the outlet port, this adjustment also determines the rate of airflow through the restrictor.

Aircraft Hydraulic and Pneumatic Systems
Figure 6. Variable pneumatic restrictor


Pneumatic systems are protected against dirt by means of various types of filters. A micronic filter consists of a housing with two ports, a replaceable cartridge, and a relief valve. Normally, air enters the inlet, circulates around the cellulose cartridge, and flows to the center of the cartridge and out the outlet port. If the cartridge becomes clogged with dirt, pressure forces the relief valve open and allows unfiltered air to flow out the outlet port.

A screen-type filter is similar to the micron filter but contains a permanent wire screen instead of a replaceable cartridge. In the screen filter, a handle extends through the top of the housing and can be used to clean the screen by rotating it against metal scrapers.

Desiccant/Moisture Separator

The moisture separator in a pneumatic system is always located downstream of the compressor. Its purpose is to remove any moisture caused by the compressor. A complete moisture separator consists of a reservoir, a pressure switch, a dump valve, and a check valve. It may also include a regulator and a relief valve. The dump valve is energized and deenergized by the pressure switch. When deenergized, it completely purges the separator reservoir and lines up to the compressor. The check valve protects the system against pressure loss during the dumping cycle and prevents reverse flow through the separator.

Chemical Drier

Chemical driers are incorporated at various locations in a pneumatic system. Their purpose is to absorb any moisture that may collect in the lines and other parts of the system. Each drier contains a cartridge that should be blue in color. If otherwise noted, the cartridge is to be considered contaminated with moisture and should be replaced.

Emergency Backup Systems

Many aircraft use a high-pressure pneumatic back-up source of power to extend the landing gear or actuate the brakes, if the main hydraulic braking system fails. The nitrogen is not directly used to actuate the landing gear actuators or brake units but, instead, it applies the pressurized nitrogen to move hydraulic fluid to the actuator. This process is called pneudraulics. The following paragraph discusses the components and operation of an emergency pneumatic landing gear extension system used on a business jet. [Figure 7]

Aircraft Hydraulic and Pneumatic Systems
Figure 7. Pneumatic emergency landing gear extension system

Nitrogen Bottles

Nitrogen used for emergency landing gear extension is stored in two bottles, one bottle located on each side of the nose wheel well. Nitrogen from the bottles is released by actuation of an outlet valve. Once depleted, the bottles must be recharged by maintenance personnel. Fully serviced pressure is approximately 3,100 psi at 70 °F/21 °C, enough for only one extension of the landing gear.

Gear Emergency Extension Cable and Handle

The outlet valve is connected to a cable and handle assembly. The handle is located on the side of the copilot’s console and is labeled EMER LDG GEAR. Pulling the handle fully upward opens the outlet valve, releasing compressed nitrogen into the landing gear extension system. Pushing the handle fully downward closes the outlet valve and allows any nitrogen present in the emergency landing gear extension system to be vented overboard. The venting process takes approximately 30 seconds.

Dump Valve

As compressed nitrogen is released to the landing gear selector/dump valve during emergency extension, the pneudraulic pressure actuates the dump valve portion of the landing gear selector/dump valve to isolate the landing gear system from the remainder of hydraulic system. When activated, a blue DUMP legend is illuminated on the LDG GR DUMP V switch, located on the cockpit overhead panel. A dump valve reset switch is used to reset the dump valve after the system has been used and serviced.

Emergency Extension Sequence:
  1. Landing gear handle is placed in the DOWN position.
  2. Red light in the lnding gear control handle is illuminated.
  3. EMER LDG GEAR handle is pulled fully outward.
  4. Compressed nitrogen is released to the landing gear selector/dump valve.
  5. Pneudraulic pressure actuates the dump valve portion of the landing gear selector/dump valve.
  6. Blue DUMP legend is illuminated on the LDG GR DUMP switch.
  7. Landing gear system is isolated from the remainder of hydraulic system.
  8. Pneudraulic pressure is routed to the OPEN side of the landing gear door actuators, the UNLOCK side of the landing gear uplock actuators, and the EXTEND side of the main landing gear sidebrace actuators and nose landing gear extend/retract actuator.
  9. Landing gear doors open.
  10. Uplock actuators unlock.
  11. Landing gear extends down and locks.
  12. Three green DOWN AND LOCKED lights on the landing gear control panel are illuminated.
  13. Landing gear doors remain open.

Medium Pressure Pneumatic Systems

A medium-pressure pneumatic system (50–150 psi) usually does not include an air bottle. Instead, it generally draws air from the compressor section of a turbine engine. This process is often called bleed air and is used to provide pneumatic power for engine starts, engine deicing, wing deicing, and in some cases, it provides hydraulic power to the aircraft systems (if the hydraulic system is equipped with an air-driven hydraulic pump). Engine bleed air is also used to pressurize the reservoirs of the hydraulic system. Bleed air systems are discussed in more detail in the powerplant section.

Low Pressure Pneumatic Systems

Many aircraft equipped with reciprocating engines obtain a supply of low-pressure air from vane-type pumps. These pumps are driven by electric motors or by the aircraft engine. Figure 8 shows a schematic view of one of these pumps, which consists of a housing with two ports, a drive shaft, and two vanes. The drive shaft and the vanes contain slots so the vanes can slide back and forth through the drive shaft. The shaft is eccentrically mounted in the housing, causing the vanes to form four different sizes of chambers (A, B, C, and D). In the position shown, B is the largest chamber and is connected to the supply port. As depicted in Figure 8, outside air can enter chamber B of the pump. When the pump begins to operate, the drive shaft rotates and changes positions of the vanes and sizes of the chambers. Vane No. 1 then moves to the right, separating chamber B from the supply port. Chamber B now contains trapped air.

Aircraft Hydraulic and Pneumatic Systems
Figure 8. Schematic of vane-type air pump

As the shaft continues to turn, chamber B moves downward and becomes increasingly smaller, gradually compressing its air. Near the bottom of the pump, chamber B connects to the pressure port and sends compressed air into the pressure line. Then chamber B moves upward again becoming increasingly larger in area. At the supply port, it receives another supply of air. There are four such chambers in this pump and each goes through this same cycle of operation. Thus, the pump delivers to the pneumatic system a continuous supply of compressed air from 1 to 10 psi. Low-pressure systems are used for wing deicing boot systems.

Pneumatic Power System Maintenance

Maintenance of the pneumatic power system consists of servicing, troubleshooting, removal, and installation of components, and operational testing.

The air compressor’s lubricating oil level should be checked daily in accordance with the applicable manufacturer’s instructions. The oil level is indicated by means of a sight gauge or dipstick. When refilling the compressor oil tank, the oil (type specified in the applicable instructions manual) is added until the specified level. After the oil is added, ensure that the filler plug is torqued and safety wire is properly installed.

The pneumatic system should be purged periodically to remove the contamination, moisture, or oil from the components and lines. Purging the system is accomplished by pressurizing it and removing the plumbing from various components throughout the system. Removal of the pressurized lines causes a high rate of airflow through the system, causing foreign matter to be exhausted from the system. If an excessive amount of foreign matter, particularly oil, is exhausted from any one system, the lines and components should be removed and cleaned or replaced.

Upon completion of pneumatic system purging and after reconnecting all the system components, the system air bottles should be drained to exhaust any moisture or impurities that may have accumulated there.

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