Air Turbine Starters - Aircraft Engine Starting System

Air turbine starters are designed to provide high starting torque from a small, lightweight source. The typical air turbine starter weighs from one-fourth to one-half as much as an electric starter capable of starting the same engine. It is capable of developing considerable more torque than the electric starter.
The typical air turbine starter consists of an axial flow turbine that turns a drive coupling through a reduction gear train and a starter clutch mechanism. The air to operate an air turbine starter is supplied from either a ground-operated air cart, the APU, or a cross-bleed start from an engine already operating. [Figure 1]

Aircraft Engine Starting System
Figure 1. Air turbine starters are supplied by ground cart, APU, or another operating onboard engine

Only one source of around 30–50 pounds per square inch (psi) is used at a time to start the engines. The pressure in the ducts must be high enough to provide for a complete start with a normal limit minimum of about 30 psi. When starting engines with an air turbine starter, always check the duct pressure prior to the start attempt.

Figure 2 is a cutaway view of an air turbine starter. The starter is operated by introducing air of sufficient volume and pressure into the starter inlet. The air passes into the starter turbine housing where it is directed against the rotor blades by the nozzle vanes causing the turbine rotor to turn. As the rotor turns, it drives the reduction gear train and clutch arrangement, which includes the rotor pinion, planet gears and carrier, sprag clutch assembly, output shaft assembly, and drive coupling. The sprag clutch assembly engages automatically as soon as the rotor starts to turn, but disengages as soon as the drive coupling turns more rapidly than the rotor side. When the starter reaches this overrun speed, the action of the sprag clutch allows the gear train to coast to a halt. The output shaft assembly and drive coupling continue to turn as long as the engine is running. A rotor switch actuator, mounted in the turbine rotor hub, is set to open the turbine switch when the starter reaches cutout speed. Opening the turbine switch interrupts an electrical signal to the start valve. This closes the valve and shuts off the air supply to the starter.

Aircraft Engine Starting System
Figure 2. Cutaway view of an air turbine starter

The turbine housing contains the turbine rotor, the rotor switch actuator, and the nozzle components that direct the inlet air against the rotor blades. The turbine housing incorporates a turbine rotor containment ring designed to dissipate the energy of blade fragments and direct their discharge at low energy through the exhaust duct in the event of rotor failure due to excessive turbine overspeed.

The transmission housing contains the reduction gears, the clutch components, and the drive coupling. The transmission housing also provides a reservoir for the lubricating oil. [Figure 3] Normal maintenance for air turbine starters includes checking the oil level, inspecting the magnetic chip detector for metal particles, and checking for leaks. Oil can be added to the transmission housing sump through a port in the starter. This port is closed by a vent plug containing a ball valve that allows the sump to be vented to the atmosphere during normal flight. The housing also incorporates a sight gauge that is used to check the oil quantity. A magnetic drain plug in the transmission drain opening attracts any ferrous particles that may be in the oil. The starter uses turbine oil, the same as the engine, but this oil does not circulate through the engine.

Aircraft Engine Starting System
Figure 3. Air turbine starter

The ring gear housing, which is internal, contains the rotor assembly. The switch housing contains the turbine switch and bracket assembly. To facilitate starter installation and removal, a mounting adapter is bolted to the mounting pad on the engine. Quick-detach clamps join the starter to the mounting adapter and inlet duct. [Figure 3] Thus, the starter is easily removed for maintenance or overhaul by disconnecting the electrical line, loosening the clamps, and carefully disengaging the drive coupling from the engine starter drive as the starter is withdrawn.

The air path is directed through a combination pressure regulating and shutoff valve, or bleed valve, that controls all duct pressure flowing to the starter inlet ducting. This valve regulates the pressure of the starter operating air and shuts off the air supply to the engine when selected off. Downstream from the bleed valve is the start valve, which is used to control air flow into the starter. [Figure 4]

Aircraft Engine Starting System
Figure 4. Regulating and shutoff bleed valve

The pressure-regulating and shutoff valve consists of two sub-assemblies: pressure-regulating valve and pressure regulating valve control. [Figure 5] The regulating valve assembly consists of a valve housing containing a butterfly type valve. [Figure 5] The shaft of the butterfly valve is connected through a cam arrangement to a servo piston. When the piston is actuated, its motion on the cam causes rotation of the butterfly valve. The slope of the cam track is designed to provide small initial travel and high initial torque when the starter is actuated. The cam track slope also provides more stable action by increasing the opening time of the valve.

Aircraft Engine Starting System
Figure 5. Pressure-regulating and shutoff valve in on position

The control assembly is mounted on the regulating valve housing and consists of a control housing in which a solenoid is used to stop the action of the control crank in the off position. [Figure 5] The control crank links a pilot valve that meters pressure to the servo piston, with the bellows connected by an air line to the pressure-sensing port on the starter.

Turning on the starter switch energizes the regulating valve solenoid. The solenoid retracts and allows the control crank to rotate to the open position. The control crank is rotated by the control rod spring moving the control rod against the closed end of the bellows. Since the regulating valve is closed and downstream pressure is negligible, the bellows can be fully extended by the bellows spring.

As the control crank rotates to the open position, it causes the pilot valve rod to open the pilot valve, allowing upstream air, which is supplied to the pilot valve through a suitable filter and a restriction in the housing, to flow into the servo piston chamber. The drain side of the pilot valve, which bleeds the servo chamber to the atmosphere, is now closed by the pilot valve rod and the servo piston moves inboard. [Figure 5] This linear motion of the servo piston is translated to rotary motion of the valve shaft by the rotating cam, thus opening the regulating valve. As the valve opens, downstream pressure increases. This pressure is bled back to the bellows through the pressure-sensing line and compresses the bellows. This action moves the control rod, thereby turning the control crank, and moving the pilot valve rod gradually away from the servo chamber to vent to the atmosphere. [Figure 5] When downstream (regulated) pressure reaches a preset value, the amount of air flowing into the servo through the restriction equals the amount of air being bled to the atmosphere through the servo bleed; the system is in a state of equilibrium.

When the bleed valve and the start valve are open, the regulated air passing through the inlet housing of the starter impinges on the turbine causing it to turn. As the turbine turns, the gear train is activated and the inboard clutch gear, which is threaded onto a helical screw, moves forward as it rotates; its jaw teeth engage those of the outboard clutch gear to drive the output shaft of the starter. The clutch is an overrunning type to facilitate positive engagement and minimize chatter. When starter cut-out speed is reached, the start valve is closed. When the air to the starter is terminated, the outboard clutch gear, driven by the engine, begins to turn faster than the inboard clutch gear; the inboard clutch gear, actuated by the return spring, disengages the outboard clutch gear allowing the rotor to coast to a halt. The outboard clutch shaft continues to turn with the engine.

Air Turbine Starter Troubleshooting Guide

The troubleshooting procedures listed in Figure 6 are applicable to air turbine starting systems equipped with a combination pressure-regulating and shutoff valve. These procedures should be used as a guide only, and are not intended to replace the manufacturer’s instructions.

Air Turbine Starter System Troubleshooting Procedures
Trouble Probable Cause Remedy
Starter does not operate (no rotation) No air supply Check air supply
Electrical open in cutout switch Check switch continuity. If no continuity, remove starter and adjust or replace switch
Sheared starter drive coupling Remove starter and replace drive coupling
Internal starter discrepancy Remove and replace starter
Starter will not accelerate to normal cutoff speed Low starter air supply Check air source pressure
Starter cutout switch set improperly Adjust rotor switch actuator
Valve pressure regulated too low Replace valve
Internal starter malfunction Remove and replace starter
Starter will not not cut off Low air supply Check air supply
Rotor switch actuator set too high Adjust switch actuator assembly
Starter cutout switch shorted Replace switch and bracket assembly
External oil leakage Oil level too high Drain oil and re-service properly
Loose vent, oil filler, or magnetic plugs Tighten magnetic plug to proper torque
Loose clamp band assembly Tighten vent and oil filler plugs as necessary and lock wire. Tighten clamp band assembly to higher torque
Starter runs, but engine does not turn over Sheared drive coupling Remove starter and replace the drive coupling.
If couplings persist in breaking in unusually short periods of time, remove and replace starter
Starter inlet will not line up with supply ducting Improper installation of starter on engine, or improper indexing of turbine housing on starter Check installation and/or indexing for conformance with manufacturer’s installation instructions and the proper index position of the turbine housing specified for the aircraft
Metallic particles on magnetic drain plug Small fuzzy particles indicate normal wear No remedial action required
Particles coarser than fuzzy (chips, slivers, etc.) indicate internal difficulty Remove and replace starter
Broken nozzle vanes Large foreign particles in air supply Remove and replace starter and check air supply filter
Oil leakage from vent plug assembly Improper starter installation position Check installed position for levelness of oil plugs and correct as required in accordance with manufacturer’s installation instructions
Oil leakage at drive coupling Leaking rear seal assembly Remove and replace starter

Figure 6. Air turbine starter system troubleshooting procedures