Aircraft Gas Turbine Engine Ignition Systems

Since turbine ignition systems are operated mostly for a brief period during the engine-starting cycle, they are, as a rule, more trouble-free than the typical reciprocating engine ignition system. The turbine engine ignition system does not need to be timed to spark during an exact point in the operational cycle. It is used to ignite the fuel in the combustor and then it is switched off. Other modes of turbine ignition system operation, such as continuous ignition that is used at a lower voltage and energy level, are used for certain flight conditions.

Continuous ignition is used in case the engine were to flame out. This ignition could relight the fuel and keep the engine from stopping. Examples of critical flight modes that use continuous ignition are takeoff, landing, and some abnormal and emergency situations.

Most gas turbine engines are equipped with a high-energy, capacitor-type ignition system and are air cooled by fan airflow. Fan air is ducted to the exciter box, and then flows around the igniter lead and surrounds the igniter before flowing back into the nacelle area. Cooling is important when continuous ignition is used for some extended period of time. Gas turbine engines may be equipped with an electronic-type ignition system, which is a variation of the simpler capacitor-type system.

The typical turbine engine is equipped with a capacitor-type, or capacitor discharge, ignition system consisting of two identical independent ignition units operating from a common low-voltage (DC) electrical power source: the aircraft battery, 115 AC, or its permanent magnet generator. The generator is turned directly by the engine through the accessory gear box and produces power any time the engine is turning. The fuel in turbine engines can be ignited readily in ideal atmospheric conditions, but since they often operate in the low temperatures of high altitudes, it is imperative that the system be capable of supplying a high heat intensity spark. Thus, a high-voltage is supplied to arc across a wide igniter spark gap, providing the ignition system with a high degree of reliability under widely varying conditions of altitude, atmospheric pressure, temperature, fuel vaporization, and input voltage.

A typical ignition system includes two exciter units, two transformers, two intermediate ignition leads, and two high-tension leads. Thus, as a safety factor, the ignition system is actually a dual system designed to fire two igniter plugs. [Figure 1]

Aircraft Gas Turbine Engine Ignition Systems
Figure 1. Turbine ignition system components

Figure 2 is a functional schematic diagram of a typical older style capacitor-type turbine ignition system. A 24-volt DC input voltage is supplied to the input receptacle of the exciter unit. Before the electrical energy reaches the exciter unit, it passes through a filter that prevents noise voltage from being induced into the aircraft electrical system. The low-voltage input power operates a DC motor that drives one multilobe cam and one single-lobe cam. At the same time, input power is supplied to a set of breaker points that are actuated by the multilobe cam.

Aircraft Gas Turbine Engine Ignition Systems
Figure 2. Capacitor-type ignition system schematic

From the breaker points, a rapidly interrupted current is delivered to an auto transformer. When the breaker closes, the flow of current through the primary winding of the transformer establishes a magnetic field. When the breaker opens, the flow of current stops, and the collapse of the field induces a voltage in the secondary of the transformer. This voltage causes a pulse of current to flow into the storage capacitor through the rectifier, which limits the flow to a single direction. With repeated pulses, the storage capacitor assumes a charge, up to a maximum of approximately 4 joules. (Note: 1 joule per second equals 1 watt.) The storage capacitor is connected to the spark igniter through the triggering transformer and a contactor, normally open.

When the charge on the capacitor has built up, the contactor is closed by the mechanical action of the single-lobe cam. A portion of the charge flows through the primary of the triggering transformer and the capacitor connected with it. This current induces a high-voltage in the secondary, which ionizes the gap at the spark igniter.

When the spark igniter is made conductive, the storage capacitor discharges the remainder of its accumulated energy along with the charge from the capacitor in series with the primary of the triggering transformer. The spark rate at the spark igniter varies in proportion to the voltage of the DC power supply that affects the rpm of the motor. However, since both cams are geared to the same shaft, the storage capacitor always accumulates its store of energy from the same number of pulses before discharge. The employment of the high-frequency triggering transformer, with a low-reactance secondary winding, holds the time duration of the discharge to a minimum. This concentration of maximum energy in minimum time achieves an optimum spark for ignition purposes, capable of blasting carbon deposits and vaporizing globules of fuel.

All high-voltage in the triggering circuits is completely isolated from the primary circuits. The complete exciter is hermetically sealed, protecting all components from adverse operating conditions, eliminating the possibility of flashover at altitude due to pressure change. This also ensures shielding against leakage of high-frequency voltage interfering with the radio reception of the aircraft.

Capacitor Discharge Exciter Unit

This capacity-type system provides ignition for turbine engines. Like other turbine ignition systems, it is required only for starting the engine; once combustion has begun, the flame is continuous. [Figure 3]

Aircraft Gas Turbine Engine Ignition Systems
Figure 3. Fan air-cooled exciter

The energy is stored in capacitors. Each discharge circuit incorporates two storage capacitors; both are located in the exciter unit. The voltage across these capacitors is stepped up by transformer units. At the instant of igniter plug firing, the resistance of the gap is lowered sufficiently to permit the larger capacitor to discharge across the gap. The discharge of the second capacitor is of low-voltage, but of very high energy. The result is a spark of great heat intensity, capable of not only igniting abnormal fuel mixtures but also burning away any foreign deposits on the plug electrodes.

The exciter is a dual unit that produces sparks at each of the two igniter plugs. A continuous series of sparks is produced until the engine starts. The power is then cut off, and the plugs do not fire while the engine is operating other than on continuous ignition for certain flight conditions. This is why the exciters are air cooled to prevent overheating during long use of continuous ignition.

Igniter Plugs

The igniter plug of a turbine engine ignition system differs considerably from the spark plug of a reciprocating engine ignition system. [Figure 4] Its electrode must be capable of withstanding a current of much higher energy than the electrode of a conventional spark plug. This high energy current can quickly cause electrode erosion, but the short periods of operation minimize this aspect of igniter maintenance. The electrode gap of the typical igniter plug is designed much larger than that of a spark plug since the operating pressures are much lower and the spark can arc more easily than in a spark plug. Finally, electrode fouling, common to the spark plug, is minimized by the heat of the high-intensity spark.

Aircraft Gas Turbine Engine Ignition Systems
Figure 4. Ignitor plugs

Figure 5 is a cutaway illustration of a typical annular-gap igniter plug, sometimes referred to as a long reach igniter because it projects slightly into the combustion chamber liner to produce a more effective spark.

Aircraft Gas Turbine Engine Ignition Systems
Figure 5. Typical annular gap igniter plug

Another type of igniter plug, the constrained-gap plug, is used in some types of turbine engines. [Figure 6] It operates at a much cooler temperature because it does not project into the combustion-chamber liner. This is possible because the spark does not remain close to the plug, but arcs beyond the face of the combustion chamber liner.

Aircraft Gas Turbine Engine Ignition Systems
Figure 6. Constrained gap igniter plug