Reciprocating Engine Ignition System Maintenance and Inspection

An aircraft’s ignition system is the result of careful design and thorough testing. The ignition system usually provides good, dependable service, provided it is maintained and inspected properly. However, difficulties can occur with normal wear, which affects ignition system performance, especially with magneto systems. Breakdown and deterioration of insulating materials, breaker point wear, corrosion, bearing and oil seal wear, and electrical connection problems are all possible defects that can be associated with magneto-ignition systems. The ignition timing requires precise adjustment and painstaking care so that the following four conditions occur at the same instant:
  1. The piston in the No. 1 cylinder must be in a position a prescribed number of degrees before top dead center on the compression stroke.
  2. The rotating magnet of the magneto must be in the E-gap position.
  3. The breaker points must be just opening on the No. 1 cam lobe.
  4. The distributor finger must be aligned with the electrode serving the No. 1 cylinder.

If one of these conditions is out of synchronization with any of the others, the ignition system is out of time. If the spark is out of time, it is not delivered to the cylinder at the correct time and engine performance decreases.

When ignition in the cylinder occurs before the optimum crankshaft position is reached, the timing is said to be early. If ignition occurs too early, the piston rising in the cylinder is opposed by the full force of combustion. This condition results in a loss of engine power, overheating, and possible detonation and preignition.

If ignition occurs at a time after the optimum crankshaft position is reached, the ignition timing is said to be late. If it occurs too late, not enough time is allowed to consume the fuel-air charge, and combustion is incomplete. As a result, the engine loses power and requires a greater throttle opening to carry a given propeller load.

Moisture forming on different parts of the ignition system causes more common irregularities. Moisture can enter ignition system units through cracks or loose covers, or it can result from condensation. Breathing, a situation that occurs during the readjustment of the system from low to high atmospheric pressure, can result in drawing in moisture-laden air. Ordinarily, the heat of the engine is sufficient to evaporate this moisture, but occasionally the moist air condenses as the engine cools. The result is an appreciable moisture accumulation which causes the insulation materials to lose electrical resistance. A slight amount of moisture contamination may cause reduction in magneto output by short-circuiting to ground a part of the high-voltage current intended for the spark plug. If the moisture accumulation is appreciable, the entire magneto output may be dissipated to ground by way of flashover and carbon tracking. Moisture accumulation during flight is extremely rare because the high operating temperature of the system is effective in preventing condensation. Difficulties from moisture accumulation are probably more evident during starting and ground operation.

Spark plugs are often diagnosed as being faulty when the real malfunction exists in a different system. Malfunctioning of the carburetor, poor fuel distribution, too much valve overlap, leaking primer system, or poor idle speed and mixture settings show symptoms that are the same as those for faulty ignition. Unfortunately, many of these conditions can be temporarily improved by a spark plug change, but the trouble recurs in a short time because the real cause of the malfunction has not been eliminated. A thorough understanding of the various engine systems, along with meticulous inspection and good maintenance methods, can substantially reduce such errors.