Aircraft Hydraulic System Components

Figure 1 below is a typical example of a hydraulic system in a large commercial aircraft. The following sections discuss the components of such system in more detail.

airplane hydraulic system diagram
Figure 1. Large commercial aircraft hydraulic system

Reservoirs 

The reservoir is a tank in which an adequate supply of fluid for the system is stored. Fluid flows from the reservoir to the pump, where it is forced through the system and eventually returned to the reservoir. The reservoir not only supplies the operating needs of the system, but it also replenishes fluid lost through leakage. Furthermore, the reservoir serves as an overflow basin for excess fluid forced out of the system by thermal expansion (the increase of fluid volume caused by temperature changes), the accumulators, and by piston and rod displacement. 

The reservoir also furnishes a place for the fluid to purge itself of air bubbles that may enter the system. Foreign matter picked up in the system may also be separated from the fluid in the reservoir or as it flows through line filters. Reservoirs are either pressurized or nonpressurized. 

Baffles and/or fins are incorporated in most reservoirs to keep the fluid within the reservoir from having random movement, such as vortexing (swirling) and surging. These conditions can cause fluid to foam and air to enter the pump along with the fluid. Many reservoirs incorporate strainers in the filler neck to prevent the entry of foreign matter during servicing. These strainers are made of fine mesh screening and are usually referred to as finger strainers because of their shape. Finger strainers should never be removed or punctured as a means of speeding up the pouring of fluid into the reservoir. Reservoirs could have an internal trap to make sure fluid goes to the pumps during negative-G conditions. 

Most aircraft have emergency hydraulic systems that take over if main systems fail. In many such systems, the pumps of both systems obtain fluid from a single reservoir. Under such circumstances, a supply of fluid for the emergency pump is ensured by drawing the hydraulic fluid from the bottom of the reservoir. The main system draws its fluid through a standpipe located at a higher level. With this arrangement, should the main system’s fluid supply become depleted, adequate fluid is left for operation of the emergency system. Figure 2 illustrates that the engine-driven pump (EDP) is not able to draw fluid any more if the reservoir gets depleted below the standpipe. The alternating current motor-driven pump (ACMP) still has a supply of fluid for emergency operations.

aircraft hydraulic system
Figure 2. Hydraulic reservoir standpipe for emergency operations

Nonpressurized Reservoirs 

Nonpressurized reservoirs are used in aircraft that are not designed for violent maneuvers, do not fly at high altitudes, or in which the reservoir is located in the pressurized area of the aircraft. High altitude in this situation means an altitude where atmospheric pressure is inadequate to maintain sufficient flow of fluid to the hydraulic pumps. Most nonpressurized reservoirs are constructed in a cylindrical shape. The outer housing is manufactured from a strong corrosion-resistant metal. Filter elements are normally installed within the reservoir to clean returning system hydraulic fluid.

aircraft hydraulic system diagram
Figure 3. Nonpressurized reservoir

In some of the older aircraft, a filter bypass valve is incorporated to allow fluid to bypass the filter in the event the filter becomes clogged. Reservoirs can be serviced by pouring fluid directly into the reservoir through a filler strainer (finger strainer) assembly incorporated within the filler well to strain out impurities as the fluid enters the reservoir. Generally, nonpressurized reservoirs use a visual gauge to indicate the fluid quantity. Gauges incorporated on or in the reservoir may be a direct reading glass tube-type or a float-type rod that is visible through a transparent dome. In some cases, the fluid quantity may also be read in the cockpit through the use of quantity transmitters. A typical nonpressurized reservoir is shown in Figure 3. This reservoir consists of a welded body and cover assembly clamped together. Gaskets are incorporated to seal against leakage between assemblies. 

Nonpressurized reservoirs are slightly pressurized due to thermal expansion of fluid and the return of fluid to the reservoir from the main system. This pressure ensures that there is a positive flow of fluids to the inlet ports of the hydraulic pumps. Most reservoirs of this type are vented directly to the atmosphere or cabin with only a check valve and filter to control the outside air source. The reservoir system includes a pressure and vacuum relief valve. The purpose of the valve is to maintain a differential pressure range between the reservoir and cabin. A manual air bleed valve is installed on top of the reservoir to vent the reservoir. The valve is connected to the reservoir vent line to allow depressurization of the reservoir. The valve is actuated prior to servicing the reservoir to prevent fluid from being blown out of the filler as the cap is being removed. The manual bleed valve also needs to be actuated if hydraulic components need to be replaced. 

Pressurized Reservoirs 

Reservoirs on aircraft designed for high-altitude flight are usually pressurized. Pressurizing assures a positive flow of fluid to the pump at high altitudes when low atmospheric pressures are encountered. On some aircraft, the reservoir is pressurized by bleed air taken from the compressor section of the engine. On others, the reservoir may be pressurized by hydraulic system pressure. 

Air-Pressurized Reservoirs 

Air-pressurized reservoirs are used in many commercial transport-type aircraft. [Figure 4 and 5] Pressurization of the reservoir is required because the reservoirs are often located in wheel wells or other non-pressurized areas of the aircraft and at high altitude there is not enough atmospheric pressure to move the fluid to the pump inlet. Engine bleed air is used to pressurize the reservoir. The reservoirs are typically cylindrical in shape. The following components are installed on a typical reservoir:

aircraft hydraulic system diagram
Figure 4. Air-pressurized reservoir

aircraft hydraulic system components
Figure 5. Components of an air-pressurized reservoir

aircraft hydraulic system components
Figure 6. Temperature and quantity sensors

  • Reservoir pressure relief valve—prevents over pressurization of the reservoir. Valve opens at a preset value. 
  • Sight glasses (low and overfull)—provides visual indication for flight crews and maintenance personnel that the reservoir needs to be serviced. 
  • Reservoir sample valve—used to draw a sample of hydraulic fluid for testing. 
  • Reservoir drain valve—used to drain the fluids out of the reservoir for maintenance operation. 
  • Reservoir temperature transducer—provides hydraulic fluid temperature information for the flight deck. [Figure 6] 
  • Reservoir quantity transmitter—transmits fluid quantity to the flight deck so that the flight crew can monitor fluid quantity during flight. [Figure 6] 

A reservoir pressurization module is installed close to the reservoir. [Figure 7] The reservoir pressurization module supplies airplane bleed air to the reservoirs. The module consists of the following parts: 
  • Filters (2) 
  • Check valves (2) 
  • Test port 
  • Manual bleed valve 
  • Gauge port

Figure 7. Reservoir pressurization module

A manual bleeder valve is incorporated into the module. During hydraulic system maintenance, it is necessary to relieve reservoir air pressure to assist in the installation and removal of components, lines, etc. This type of valve is small in size and has a push button installed in the outer case. When the bleeder valve push button is pushed, pressurized air from the reservoir flows through the valve to an overboard vent until the air pressure is depleted or the button is released. When the button is released, the internal spring causes the poppet to return to its seat. Some hydraulic fluid can escape from the manual bleed valve when the button is depressed. 

Caution: Put a rag around the air bleed valve on the reservoir pressurization module to catch hydraulic fluid spray. Hydraulic fluid spray can cause injuries to persons. 

Fluid Pressurized Reservoirs 

Some aircraft hydraulic system reservoirs are pressurized by hydraulic system pressure. Regulated hydraulic pump output pressure is applied to a movable piston inside the cylindrical reservoir. This small piston is attached to and moves a larger piston against the reservoir fluid. The reduced force of the small piston when applied by the larger piston is adequate to provide head pressure for high altitude operation. The small piston protrudes out of the body of the reservoir. The amount exposed is used as a reservoir fluid quantity indicator. Figure 8 illustrates the concept behind the fluid-pressurized hydraulic reservoir.

aircraft hydraulic system operation
Figure 8. Operating principle behind a fluid-pressurized hydraulic reservoir

The reservoir has five ports: pump suction, return, pressurizing, overboard drain, and bleed port. Fluid is supplied to the pump through the pump suction port. Fluid returns to the reservoir from the system through the return port. Pressure from the pump enters the pressurizing cylinder in the top of the reservoir through the pressurizing port. The overboard drain port drains the reservoir, when necessary, while performing maintenance. The bleed port is used as an aid in servicing the reservoir. When servicing a system equipped with this type of reservoir, place a container under the bleed drain port. The fluid should then be pumped into the reservoir until air-free fluid flows through the bleed drain port. 

The reservoir fluid level is indicated by the markings on the part of the pressurizing cylinder that moves through the reservoir dust cover assembly. There are three fluid level markings indicated on the cover: full at zero system pressure (FULL ZERO PRESS), full when system is pressurized (FULL SYS PRESS), and REFILL. When the system is unpressurized and the pointer on the reservoir lies between the two full marks, a marginal reservoir fluid level is indicated. When the system is pressurized and the pointer lies between REFILL and FULL SYS PRESS, a marginal reservoir fluid level is also indicated. 

Reservoir Servicing

Nonpressurized reservoirs can be serviced by pouring fluid directly into the reservoir through a filler strainer (finger strainer) assembly incorporated within the filler well to strain out impurities as the fluid enters the reservoir. Many reservoirs also have a quick disconnect service port at the bottom of the reservoir. A hydraulic filler unit can be connected to the service port to add fluid to the reservoir. This method reduces the chances of contamination of the reservoir. Aircraft that use pressurized reservoirs often have a central filling station in the ground service bay to service all reservoirs from a single point. [Figure 9]

aircraft hydraualic system diagram
Figure 9. 
The hydraulic ground serive station on a Boeing 737 provides for hydraulic fluid servicing with a hand pump or via an external pressure fluid source. All three reservoirs are serviced from the same location.

A built-in hand pump is available to draw fluid from a container through a suction line and pump it into the reservoirs. Additionally, a pressure fill port is available for attachment of a hydraulic mule or serving cart, which uses an external pump to push fluid into the aircraft hydraulic system. A check valve keeps the hand pump output from exiting the pressure fill port. A single filter is located downstream of both the pressure fill port and the hand pump to prevent the introduction of contaminants during fluid servicing.

It is very important to follow the maintenance instructions when servicing the reservoir. To get the correct results when the hydraulic fluid quantities are checked or the reservoirs are to be filled, the airplane should be in the correct configuration. Failure to do so could result in overservicing of the reservoir. This configuration could be different for each aircraft. The following service instructions are an example of a large transport-type aircraft.

Before servicing always make sure that the:
  • Spoilers are retracted, 
  • Landing gear is down, 
  • Landing gear doors are closed, 
  • Thrust reversers are retracted, and 
  • Parking brake accumulator pressure reads at least 2,500 psi.