Aircraft Gas Turbine Engine Bearings and Seals

The main bearings have the critical function of supporting the main engine rotor. The number of bearings necessary for proper engine support is, for the most part, determined by the length and weight of the engine rotor. The length and weight are directly affected by the type of compressor used in the engine. Naturally, a two-spool compressor requires more bearing support. The minimum number of bearings required to support one shaft is one deep groove ball bearing (thrust and radial loads) and one straight roller bearing (radial load only). Sometimes, it is necessary to use more than one roller bearing if the shaft is subject to vibration or its length is excessive. The gas turbine rotors are supported by ball and roller bearings, which are antifriction bearings. [Figure 1] Many newer engines use hydraulic bearings, in which the outside race is surrounded by a thin film of oil. This reduces vibrations transmitted to the engine.

Aircraft Gas Turbine Engine Bearings and Seals
Figure 1. Types of main bearings used for gas turbine rotor support

In general, antifriction bearings are preferred largely because they:
  • Offer little rotational resistance,
  • Facilitate precision alignment of rotating elements,
  • Are relatively inexpensive,
  • Are easily replaced,
  • Withstand high momentary overloads,
  • Are simple to cool, lubricate, and maintain,
  • Accommodate both radial and axial loads, and
  • Are relatively resistant to elevated temperatures.

The main disadvantages are their vulnerability to foreign matter and tendency to fail without appreciable warning. Usually the ball bearings are positioned on the compressor or turbine shaft so that they can absorb any axial (thrust) loads or radial loads. Because the roller bearings present a larger working surface, they are better equipped to support radial loads than thrust loads. Therefore, they are used primarily for this purpose. A typical ball or roller bearing assembly includes a bearing support housing, which must be strongly constructed and supported in order to carry the radial and axial loads of the rapidly rotating rotor. The bearing housing usually contains oil seals to prevent the oil leaking from its normal path of flow. It also delivers the oil to the bearing for its lubrication, usually through spray nozzles. The oil seals may be the labyrinth or thread (helical) type. These seals also may be pressurized to minimize oil leaking along the compressor shaft. The labyrinth seal is usually pressurized, but the helical seal depends solely on reverse threading to stop oil leakage. These two types of seals are very similar, differing only in thread size and the fact that the labyrinth seal is pressurized.

Another type of oil seal used on some of the later engines is the carbon seal. These seals are usually spring loaded and are similar in material and application to the carbon brushes used in electrical motors. Carbon seals rest against a surface provided to create a sealed bearing cavity or void; thus, the oil is prevented from leaking out along the shaft into the compressor airflow or the turbine section. [Figure 2]

Aircraft Gas Turbine Engine Bearings and Seals
Figure 2. Carbon oil seal

The ball or roller bearing is fitted into the bearing housing and may have a self-aligning feature. If a bearing is self-aligning, it is usually seated in a spherical ring. This allows the shaft a certain amount of radial movement without transmitting stress to the bearing inner race.

The bearing surface is usually provided by a machined journal on the appropriate shaft. The bearing is usually locked in position by a steel snap ring or other suitable locking device. The rotor shaft also provides the matching surface for the oil seals in the bearing housing. These machined surfaces are called lands and fit in rather close to the oil seal.