Reciprocating Engine Magneto Internal Timing Check

When replacing or preparing a magneto for installation, the first concern is with the internal timing of the magneto. For each magneto model, the manufacturer determines how many degrees beyond the neutral position a pole of the rotor magnet should be to obtain the strongest spark at the instant of breaker point separation. This angular displacement from the neutral position, known as the E-gap angle, varies with different magneto models. On one model, a step is cut on the end of the breaker cam to check internal timing of the magneto. When a straightedge is laid along this step and it coincides with the timing marks on the rim of the breaker housing, the magneto rotor is then in the E-gap position, and the breaker contact points should just begin to open.

Aircraft Reciprocating Engine Magneto Internal Timing Check
Figure 1. Timing marks indicate the number one firing position of a magneto

Another method for checking E-gap is to align a timing mark with a pointed chamfered tooth. [Figure 1] The breaker points should be just starting to open when these marks line up.

In a third method, the E-gap is correct when a timing pin is in place and red marks visible through a vent hole in the side of the magneto case are aligned. [Figure 2] The contact points should be just opening when the rotor is in the position just described.

Aircraft Reciprocating Engine Magneto Internal Timing Check
Figure 2. Checking magneto E-gap

Bench timing the magneto, or setting the E-gap, involves positioning the magneto rotor at the E-gap position and setting the breaker points to open when the timing lines or marks provided for that purpose are perfectly aligned.

High-Tension Magneto E-Gap Setting (Bench Timing)

The following steps are taken to check and adjust the timing of the breaker points for the S-200 magneto, which does not have timing marks in the breaker compartment:

1. Remove the timing inspection plug from the top of the magneto. Turn the rotating magnet in its normal direction of rotation until the painted, chamfered tooth on the distributor gear is approximately in the center of the inspection window. Then, turn the magnet back a few degrees until it is in its neutral position. Because of its magnetism, the rotating magnet holds itself in the neutral position.

2. Install the timing kit and place the pointer in the zero position. [Figure 3]

Aircraft Reciprocating Engine Magneto Internal Timing Check
Figure 3. Installing timing kit

3. Connect a suitable timing light across the main breaker points and turn the magnet in its normal direction of rotation 10° as indicated by the pointer. This is the E-gap position. The main breaker points should be adjusted to open at this point.

4. Turn the rotating magnet until the cam follower is at the highpoint on the cam lobe, and measure the clearance between the breaker points. This clearance must be 0.018 inch ± 0.006 inch [0.46 millimeter (mm) ± 0.15 mm]. If the breaker point clearance is not within these limits, the points must be adjusted for correct setting. It is then necessary to recheck and readjust the timing for breaker opening. If the breaker points cannot be adjusted to open at the correct time, they should be replaced.

Timing the High-tension Magneto to the Engine

When replacing magnetos on aircraft engines, two factors must be considered:
  1. The internal timing of the magneto, including breaker point adjustment, which must be correct to obtain maximum potential voltage from the magneto.
  2. The engine crankshaft position where the spark occurs. The engine is usually timed by using the No. 1 cylinder on the compression stroke.

The magneto must be timed by first adjusting or checking the internal timing with the magneto off the engine. This is done by checking and adjusting the ignition points to open at the E-gap position. The chamfered tooth should line up (reference timing mark for the magneto) in the middle of the timing window. The magneto is set to fire the No. 1 cylinder. Remove the most accessible spark plug from the No. 1 cylinder. Pull the propeller through in the direction of rotation until the No. 1 piston is coming up on the compression stroke. This can be determined by holding a thumb over the spark plug hole until the compression air is felt. Set the engine crankshaft at the prescribed number of degrees ahead of true top dead center as specified in the applicable manufacturer’s instruction, usually using the timing marks on the engine. With the engine set at a prescribed number of degrees ahead of true top dead center on the compression stroke and with final movement of the engine stopped in the direction of normal rotation, the magneto can be installed on the engine. [Figure 4]

Aircraft Reciprocating Engine Magneto Internal Timing Check
Figure 4. Timing marks aligned

While holding the magneto drive in the firing position for the No. 1 cylinder as indicated by the alignment of the reference marks for the magneto, install the magneto drive into the engine drive. It should be installed in the middle of its slotted flange to allow for fine timing of the magneto to the engine. Attach a timing light to both magnetos. With the engine still in the firing position, the magnetos should be timed by moving them in the flange slots until the breaker points in the magneto just open. If the slots in the mounting flange of the magneto do not permit sufficient movement to effect breaker point opening for the No. 1 cylinder, move the magneto out of position far enough to permit turning the magneto drive shaft. Then, install the magneto in position again and repeat the previous check for point opening.

Install the magneto attaching nuts on the studs and tighten slightly. The nuts must not be tight enough to prevent the movement of the magneto assembly when the magneto mounting flange is tapped with a mallet. Reconnect the timing light to the magneto and breaker points. With the light and ignition switch turned on, rotate the magneto assembly first in the direction of rotation and then in the opposite direction. This is done to determine that the points just opened. After completing this adjustment, tighten the mounting nuts. Move the propeller one blade opposite the direction of rotation and then, while observing the timing light, move the propeller in the direction of rotation until the prescribed number of degrees ahead of top dead center is reached. Be sure that the lights for both sets of points come on points open, within the prescribed timing position.

Both right and left sets of breaker points should open at the same instant, proper magneto-to-engine timing exists, and all phases of magneto operation are synchronized. Some early engines had what was referred to as staggered timing where one magneto would fire at a different number of degrees before top dead center on the compression stroke. In this case, each magneto had to be timed separately.

In the following example, a timing light is used for timing the magneto to the engine. The timing light is designed in such a way that one of two lights come on when the points open. The timing light incorporates two lights. When connecting the timing light to the magneto, the leads should be connected so that the light on the right side of the box represents the breaker points on the right magneto, and the light on the left side represents the left magneto breaker points. The black lead or ground lead must be attached to the engine or an effective ground. When using the timing light to check a magneto in a complete ignition system installed on the aircraft, the ignition switch for the engine must be turned to both. Otherwise, the lights do not indicate breaker point opening.

Performing Ignition System Checks

The ignition system has checks performed on it during the aircraft engine run-up, which is the engine check before each flight. The magneto check, as it is usually referred to, is performed during the engine run-up check list.

One other check is accomplished prior to engine shutdown. The ignition system check is used to check the individual magnetos, harnesses, and spark plugs. After reaching the engine rpm specified for the ignition system check, allow the rpm to stabilize. Place the ignition switch in the right position and note the rpm drop on the tachometer. Return the switch to the both position. Allow the switch to remain in the both position for a few seconds so that the rpm stabilizes again. Place the ignition switch in the left position and again note the rpm drop. Return the ignition switch to the both position. Note the amount of total rpm drop that occurs for each magneto position. The magneto drop should be even for both magnetos and is generally in the area of a 25-75 rpm drop for each magneto. Always refer to the aircraft operating manual for specific information. This rpm drop is because operating on one magneto combustion is not as efficient as it is with two magnetos providing sparks in the cylinder.

Remember, this tests not only the magnetos but also the ignition leads and spark plugs. If either magneto has excessive rpm drop while operating by itself, the ignition system needs to be checked for problems. If only one magneto has a high magneto drop, the problem can be isolated and corrected by operating on that magneto. This ignition system check is usually performed at the beginning of the engine run-up because rpm drops not within the prescribed limits affect later checks.

Ignition Switch Check

The ignition switch check is performed to see that all magneto ground leads are electrically grounded. The ignition switch check is usually made at 700 rpm. On those aircraft engine installations that do not idle at this low rpm, set the engine speed to the lowest possible to perform this check. When the speed to perform this check is obtained, momentarily turn the ignition switch to the off position. The engine should completely quit firing. After a drop of 200–300 rpm is observed, return the switch to the both position as rapidly as possible. Do this quickly to eliminate the possibility of afterfire and backfire when the ignition switch is returned to both.

If the ignition switch is not returned quickly enough, the engine rpm drops off completely and the engine stops. In this case, leave the ignition switch in the off position and place the mixture control in the idle-cutoff position to avoid overloading the cylinders and exhaust system with raw fuel. When the engine has completely stopped, allow it to remain inoperative for a short time before restarting.

If the engine does not cease firing in the off position, the magneto ground lead, more commonly referred to as the P lead, is open, and the trouble must be corrected. This means that one or more of the magnetos are not being shut off even when the ignition switch is in the off position. Turning the propeller of this engine can result in personnel injury or death. If the propeller is turned in this condition, the engine can start with personnel in the propeller arch.

Maintenance and Inspection of Ignition Leads

Inspection of ignition leads should include both a visual and an electrical test. During the visual test, the lead cover should be inspected for cracks or other damage, abrasions, mutilated braid, or other physical damage. Inspect leads for overheating if routed close to exhaust stacks. Disconnect the harness coupling nuts from the top of the spark plugs and remove the leads from the spark plug lead well. Inspect the contact springs and compression springs for any damage or distortion and the sleeves for cracks or carbon tracking. The coupling nut that connects to the spark plug should be inspected for damaged threads or other defects.

Each lead should be checked for continuity using a high-tension lead tester by connecting the black lead to the contact spring and the red lead to the eyelet of the same lead in the cover. The continuity lamp on the tester should illuminate when tested. The insulation resistance test of each lead is accomplished using the high-tension lead tester by attaching the red, or high-voltage, lead to the spring of the harness lead. Then, attach the black lead to the ferrule of the same lead. Depress the press-to-test push button switch on the lead tester. Observe that the indictor lamp flashes and gap fires simultaneously as long as the press-to-test switch is held in the depressed position.

If the indicator lamp flashes and the gap fails to fire, the lead under test is defective and must be replaced. The indicator lamp flashes to show that a high-voltage impulse was sent out. If it fails to pass through the tester, then the electrical pulse leaked through the wire showing it to be defective.

When defective leads are revealed by an ignition harness test, continue the test to determine whether the leads or distributor block are defective. If the difficulty is in an individual ignition lead, determine whether the electrical leak is at the spark plug elbow or elsewhere. Remove the elbow, pull the ignition lead out of the manifold a slight amount, and repeat the harness test on the defective lead. If this stops the leakage, cut away the defective portion of the lead and reinstall the elbow assembly, integral seal, and terminal (sometimes referred to as cigarette). [Figure 5]

Aircraft Reciprocating Engine Magneto Internal Timing Check
Figure 5. Replacement procedure for ignition lead terminals

If the lead is too short to repair in the manner described, or the electrical leak is inside the harness, replace the defective lead. Single ignition lead replacement procedures are as follows:
  1. Disassemble the magneto or distributor so that the distributor block is accessible.
  2. Loosen the piercing screw in the distributor block for the lead to be replaced, and remove the lead from the distributor block.
  3. Remove approximately 1 inch of insulation from the distributor block end of the defective lead and approximately 1 inch of insulation from the end of the replacement cable. Splice this end to the end of the lead to be replaced and solder the splice.
  4. Remove the elbow adapter from the spark plug end of the defective lead, then pull the old lead out and put the new lead into the harness. While pulling the leads through the harness, have someone push the replacement lead into the ignition manifold at the distributor end to reduce the force required to pull the lead through the ignition manifold.
  5. When the replacement lead has been pulled completely through the manifold, force the ignition lead up into the manifold from the distributor block end to provide extra length for future repairs, which may be necessary because of chafing at the spark plug elbow.
  6. Remove approximately 3ś8 inch of insulation from the distributor block end. Bend the ends of the wire back and prepare the ends of the cable for installation into the distributor block well. Insert the lead in the distributor and tighten the piercing screw.
  7. Remove approximately ¼ inch of insulation from the spark plug end of the lead and install the elbow, integral seal, and cigarette. [Figure 5]
  8. Install a marker on the distributor end of the cable to identify its cylinder number. If a new marker is not available, use the marker removed from the defective cable.

Replacement of Ignition Harness

Replace a complete ignition harness only when the shielding of the manifold is damaged or when the number of defective leads makes it more practical to replace the harness than to replace the individual leads. Replace a cast‑filled harness only when leakage in the cast-filled portion is indicated. Before replacing any harness to correct engine malfunctioning, make extensive ignition harness tests. Typical procedures for installing an ignition harness are detailed in the following paragraphs.

Install the ignition harness on the engine. Tighten and safety the hold down nuts and bolts and install and tighten the individual lead brackets according to instructions. The ignition harness is then ready for connection of the individual leads to the distributor block. A band is attached to each lead at the distributor end of the harness to identify the cylinder for the lead. However, each lead should be checked individually with a continuity or timing light prior to connecting it.

Check for continuity by grounding the lead at the cylinder and then checking at the distributor block end to establish that the lead grounded is as designated on the band for the lead.

After checking all leads for proper identification, cut them to the proper length for installation into the distributor block. Before cutting the leads, however, force them back into the manifold as far as possible to provide surplus wire in the ignition manifold. This extra wire may be needed at a later date in the event that chafing of a lead at the spark plug elbow necessitates cutting a short section of wire from the spark plug end of the harness. After cutting each lead to length, remove approximately 3ś8 inch of insulation from the end andprepare the lead for insertion into the distributor block. Before installing the lead, back out the set screw in the distributor block far enough to permit slipping the end of the wire into the hole without force. Insert the lead into the block and tighten the set screw. Connect the wires in firing order (the first cylinder to fire No. 1 location on the block, the second in the firing order to No. 2 location, etc).

After connecting each lead, check continuity between the lead and its distributor block electrode with continuity light or timing light. To perform one test lead, touch the other test lead to the proper distributor block electrode. If the light does not indicate a complete circuit, the set screw is not making contact with the ignition wire or the lead is connected to the wrong block location. Correct any faulty connections before installing the distributor block.

Checking Ignition Induction Vibrator Systems

To check the induction vibrator, ensure that the manual mixture control is in idle cutoff, the fuel shutoff valve and booster pump for that engine are in the off position, and the battery switch is on. Since the induction vibrator buzzes whether the ignition switch is on or off, leave the switch off during the check. If the engine is equipped with an inertia or combination starter, make the check by closing the engage mesh switch; if the engine is equipped with a direct-cranking starter, see that the propeller is clear and close the start switch. An assistant stationed close to the induction vibrator should listen for an audible buzzing sound. If the unit buzzes when the starter is engaged or cranked, the induction vibrator is operating properly.