Requirements and Characteristics of Reciprocating Engine Lubricants

While there are several important properties that satisfactory reciprocating engine oil must possess, its viscosity is most important in engine operation. The resistance of an oil to flow is known as its viscosity. Oil that flows slowly is viscous or has a high viscosity; if it flows freely, it has a low viscosity. Unfortunately, the viscosity of oil is affected by temperature. It was not uncommon for earlier grades of oil to become practically solid in cold weather, increasing drag and making circulation almost impossible. Other oils may become so thin at high temperatures that the oil film is broken, causing a low load carrying ability, resulting in rapid wear of the moving parts.

The oil selected for aircraft engine lubrication must be light enough to circulate freely at cold temperatures, yet heavy enough to provide the proper oil film at engine operating temperatures. Since lubricants vary in properties and since no one oil is satisfactory for all engines and all operating conditions, it is extremely important that only the approved grade or Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) rating be used.

Several factors must be considered in determining the proper grade of oil to use in a particular engine, the most important of which are the operating load, rotational speeds, and operating temperatures. The grade of the lubricating oil to be used is determined by the operating conditions to be met in the various types of engines. The oil used in aircraft reciprocating engines has a relatively high viscosity required by:
  1. Large engine operating clearances due to the relatively large size of the moving parts, the different materials used, and the different rates of expansion of the various materials;
  2. High operating temperatures; and
  3. High bearing pressures.


Generally, commercial aviation oils are classified by a number, (such as 80, 100, 140, etc.) that is an approximation of the viscosity as measured by a testing instrument called the Saybolt Universal Viscosimeter. In this instrument, a tube holds a specific quantity of the oil to be tested. The oil is brought to an exact temperature by a liquid bath surrounding the tube. The time in seconds required for exactly 60 cubic centimeters of oil to flow through an accurately calibrated orifice is recorded as a measure of the oil’s viscosity. If actual Saybolt values were used to designate the viscosity of oil, there would probably be several hundred grades of oil.

To simplify the selection of oils, they are often classified under an SAE system that divides all oils into seven groups (SAE 10 to 70) according to viscosity at either 130 °F or 210 °F. SAE ratings are purely arbitrary and bear no direct relationship to the Saybolt or other ratings.

The letter W occasionally is included in the SAE number giving a designation, such as SAE 20W. This W indicates that the oil, in addition to meeting the viscosity requirements at the testing temperature specifications, is satisfactory oil for winter use in cold climates. This should not be confused with the W used in front of the grade or weight number that indicates the oil is of the ashless dispersant type.

Although the SAE scale has eliminated some confusion in the designation of lubricating oils, it must not be assumed that this specification covers all the important viscosity requirements. An SAE number indicates only the viscosity grade or relative viscosity; it does not indicate quality or other essential characteristics. It is well known that there are good oils and inferior oils that have the same viscosities at a given temperature and, therefore, are subject to classification in the same grade.

Requirements and Characteristics of Reciprocating Engine Lubricants
Grade designations for aviation oils

The SAE letters on an oil container are not an endorsement or recommendation of the oil by the SAE. Although each grade of oil is rated by an SAE number, depending on its specific use, it may be rated with a commercial aviation grade number or an Army and Navy specification number. The correlation between these grade numbering systems is shown in Figure.

Viscosity Index

The viscosity index is a number that indicates the effect of temperature changes on the viscosity with the oil. When oil has a low viscosity index, it signifies a relatively large change of viscosity of increased temperature. The oil becomes thin at high temperatures and thick at low temperatures. Oils with a high viscosity index have small changes in viscosity over a wide temperature range.

The best oil for most purposes is one that maintains a constant viscosity throughout temperature changes. Oil having a high viscosity index resists excessive thickening when the engine is subjected to cold temperatures. This allows for rapid cranking speeds during starting and prompt oil circulation during initial startup. This oil resists excessive thinning when the engine is at operating temperature and provides full lubrication and bearing load protection.

Flash Point and Fire Point

Flash point and fire point are determined by laboratory tests that show the temperature at which a liquid begins to give off ignitable vapors, flash, and the temperature at which there are sufficient vapors to support a fire. These points are established for engine oils to determine that they can withstand the high temperatures encountered in an engine.

Cloud Point and Pour Point

Cloud point and pour point also help to indicate suitability. The cloud point of oil is the temperature at which its wax content, normally held in solution, begins to solidify and separate into tiny crystals, causing the oil to appear cloudy or hazy. The pour point of oil is the lowest temperature at which it flows or can be poured.

Specific Gravity

Specific gravity is a comparison of the weight of the substance to the weight of an equal volume of distilled water at a specified temperature. As an example, water weighs approximately 8 pounds to the gallon; oil with a specific gravity of 0.9 would weigh 7.2 pounds to the gallon.

In the early years, the performance of aircraft piston engines was such that they could be lubricated satisfactorily by means of straight mineral oils, blended from specially selected petroleum base stocks. Oil grades 65, 80, 100, and 120 are straight mineral oils blended from selected high-viscosity index base oils. These oils do not contain any additives except for very small amounts of pour point depressant, which helps improve fluidity at very low temperatures, and an antioxidant. This type of oil is used during the break-in period of a new aviation piston engine or those recently overhauled.

Demand for oils with higher degrees of thermal and oxidation stability necessitated fortifying them with the addition of small quantities of nonpetroleum materials. The first additives incorporated in straight mineral piston engine oils were based on the metallic salts of barium and calcium. In most engines, the performance of these oils with respect to oxidation and thermal stability was excellent, but the combustion chambers of the majority of engines could not tolerate the presence of the ash deposits derived from these metal-containing additives. To overcome the disadvantages of harmful combustion chamber deposits, a nonmetallic (i.e., non-ash forming, polymeric) additive was developed that was incorporated in blends of selected mineral oil base stocks. W oils are of the ashless type and are still in use. The ashless dispersant grades contain additives, one of which has a viscosity stabilizing effect that removes the tendency of the oil to thin out at high oil temperatures and thicken at low oil temperatures.

The additives in these oils extend operating temperature range and improve cold engine starting and lubrication of the engine during the critical warm-up period permitting flight through wider ranges of climatic changes without the necessity of changing oil.

Semi-synthetic multigrade SAE W15 W50 oil for piston engines has been in use for some time. Oils W80, W100, and W120 are ashless dispersant oils specifically developed for aviation piston engines. They combine nonmetallic additives with selected high viscosity index base oils to give exceptional stability, dispersancy, and antifoaming performance. Dispersancy is the ability of the oil to hold particles in suspension until they can either be trapped by the filter or drained at the next oil change. The dispersancy additive is not a detergent and does not clean previously formed deposits from the interior of the engine.

Some multigrade oil is a blend of synthetic and mineral-based oil semisynthetic, plus a highly effective additive package, that is added due to concern that fully synthetic oil may not have the solvency to handle the lead deposits that result from the use of leaded fuel. As multigrade oil, it offers the flexibility to lubricate effectively over a wider range of temperatures than monograde oils. Compared to monograde oil, multigrade oil provides better cold-start protection and a stronger lubricant film (higher viscosity) at typical operating temperatures. The combination of nonmetallic, antiwear additives and selected high viscosity index mineral and synthetic base oils give exceptional stability, dispersancy, and antifoaming performance. Startup can contribute up to 80 percent of normal engine wear due to lack of lubrication during the start-up cycle. The more easily the oil flows to the engine’s components at start up, the less wear occurs.

The ashless dispersant grades are recommended for aircraft engines subjected to wide variations of ambient temperature, particularly the turbocharged series engines that require oil to activate the various turbo controllers. At temperatures below 20 °F, preheating of the engine and oil supply tank is normally required regardless of the type of oil used.

Premium, semisynthetic multigrade ashless dispersant oil is a special blend of a high-quality mineral oil and synthetic hydrocarbons with an advanced additive package that has been specifically formulated for multigrade applications. The ashless antiwear additive provides exceptional wear protection for wearing surfaces.

Many aircraft manufacturers add approved preservative lubricating oil to protect new engines from rust and corrosion at the time the aircraft leaves the factory. This preservative oil should be removed at end of the first 25 hours of operation. When adding oil during the period when preservative oil is in the engine, use only aviation grade straight mineral oil or ashless dispersant oil, as required, of the viscosity desired.

If ashless dispersant oil is used in a new engine, or a newly overhauled engine, high oil consumption might possibly be experienced. The additives in some of these ashless dispersant oils may retard the break in of the piston rings and cylinder walls. This condition can be avoided by the use of mineral oil until normal oil consumption is obtained, then change to the ashless dispersant oil. Mineral oil should also be used following the replacement of one or more cylinders or until the oil consumption has stabilized.

In all cases, refer to the manufacturers’ information when oil type or time in service is being considered.

Previous Post Next Post