Valve Operating Mechanism - Aircraft Reciprocating Engine

For a reciprocating engine to operate properly, each valve must open at the proper time, stay open for the required length of time, and close at the proper time. Intake valves are opened just before the piston reaches top dead center, and exhaust valves remain open after top dead center. At a particular instant, therefore, both valves are open at the same time (end of the exhaust stroke and beginning of the intake stroke). This valve overlap permits better volumetric efficiency and lowers the cylinder operating temperature. This timing of the valves is controlled by the valve-operating mechanism and is referred to as the valve timing.

The valve lift (distance that the valve is lifted off its seat) and the valve duration (length of time the valve is held open) are both determined by the shape of the cam lobes. Typical cam lobes are illustrated in Figure 1.

Aircraft Reciprocating Engine Valve Operating Mechanism
Figure 1. Typical cam lobes

The portion of the lobe that gently starts the valve operating mechanism moving is called a ramp, or step. The ramp is machined on each side of the cam lobe to permit the rocker arm to be eased into contact with the valve tip and thus reduce the shock load which would otherwise occur.

The valve operating mechanism consists of a cam ring or camshaft equipped with lobes that work against a cam roller or a cam follower. [Figures 2 and 3] The cam follower pushes a push rod and ball socket, actuating a rocker arm, which in turn opens the valve.

Aircraft Reciprocating Engine
Figure 2. Valve-operating mechanism (radial engine)

Reciprocating Engine
Figure 3. Valve-operating mechanism (opposed engine)

Springs, which slip over the stem of the valves and are held in place by the valve-spring retaining washer and stem key, close each valve and push the valve mechanism in the opposite direction. [Figure 4]

Reciprocating Engine Valve Operating Mechanism
Figure 4. A typical set of valve springs used to dampen oscillations. Multiple springs are used to protect against breakage

Cam Rings

The valve mechanism of a radial engine is operated by one or two cam rings, depending upon the number of rows of cylinders. In a single-row radial engine, one ring with a double cam track is used. One track operates the intake valves, the other operates the exhaust valves. The cam ring is a circular piece of steel with a series of cams or lobes on the outer surface. The surface of these lobes and the space between them (on which the cam rollers ride) is known as the cam track. As the cam ring revolves, the lobes cause the cam roller to raise the tappet in the tappet guide, thereby transmitting the force through the push rod and rocker arm to open the valve. In a single-row radial engine, the cam ring is usually located between the propeller reduction gearing and the front end of the power section. In a twin-row radial engine, a second cam for the operation of the valves in the rear row is installed between the rear end of the power section and the supercharger section.

The cam ring is mounted concentrically with the crankshaft and is driven by the crankshaft at a reduced rate of speed through the cam intermediate drive gear assembly. The cam ring has two parallel sets of lobes spaced around the outer periphery, one set (cam track) for the intake valves and the other for the exhaust valves. The cam rings used may have four or five lobes on both the intake and the exhaust tracks. The timing of the valve events is determined by the spacing of these lobes and the speed and direction at which the cam rings are driven in relation to the speed and direction of the crankshaft. The method of driving the cam varies on different makes of engines. The cam ring can be designed with teeth on either the inside or outside periphery. If the reduction gear meshes with the teeth on the outside of the ring, the cam turns in the direction of rotation of the crankshaft. If the ring is driven from the inside, the cam turns in the opposite direction from the crankshaft. [Figure 2]

A four-lobe cam may be used on either a seven-cylinder or nine-cylinder engine. [Figure 5] On the seven cylinder, it rotates in the same direction as the crankshaft, and on the nine cylinder, opposite the crankshaft rotation. On the nine-cylinder engine, the spacing between cylinders is 40° and the firing order is 1-3-5-7-9-2-4-6-8. This means that there is a space of 80° between firing impulses. The spacing on the four lobes of the cam ring is 90°, which is greater than the spacing between impulses. Therefore, to obtain proper relation of valve operations and firing order, it is necessary to drive the cam opposite the crankshaft rotation. Using the four-lobe cam on the seven-cylinder engine, the spacing between the firing of the cylinders is greater than the spacing of the cam lobes. Therefore, it is necessary for the cam to rotate in the same direction as the crankshaft.

Reciprocating Engine Valve Operating Mechanism
Figure 5. Radial engines, cam ring table


The valve mechanism of an opposed engine is operated by a camshaft. The camshaft is driven by a gear that mates with another gear attached to the crankshaft. [Figure 6] The camshaft always rotates at one-half the crankshaft speed.

Reciprocating Engine
Figure 6. Cam drive mechanism opposed-type aircraft engine

As the camshaft revolves, the lobes cause the tappet assembly to rise in the tappet guide, transmitting the force through the push rod and rocker arm to open the valve. [Figure 7]

Reciprocating Engine Valve Operating Mechanism
Figure 7. Cam load on lifter body

Tappet Assembly

The tappet assembly consists of:
  1. A cylindrical tappet, which slides in and out in a tappet guide installed in one of the crankcase sections around the cam ring
  2. A tappet roller, which follows the contour of the cam ring and lobes
  3. A tappet ball socket or push rod socket
  4. A tappet spring

The function of the tappet assembly is to convert the rotational movement of the cam lobe into reciprocating motion and to transmit this motion to the push rod, rocker arm, and then to the valve tip, opening the valve at the proper time. The purpose of the tappet spring is to take up the clearance between the rocker arm and the valve tip to reduce the shock load when the valve is opened. A hole is drilled through the tappet to allow engine oil to flow to the hollow push rods to lubricate the rocker assemblies.

Solid Lifters/Tappets

Solid lifters or cam followers generally require the valve clearance to be adjusted manually by adjusting a screw and lock nut. Valve clearance is needed to assure that the valve has enough clearance in the valve train to close completely. This adjustment or inspection was a continuous maintenance item until hydraulic lifters were used.

Hydraulic Valve Tappets/Lifters

Some aircraft engines incorporate hydraulic tappets that automatically keep the valve clearance at zero, eliminating the necessity for any valve clearance adjustment mechanism. A typical hydraulic tappet (zero-lash valve lifter) is shown in Figure 8. When the engine valve is closed, the face of the tappet body (cam follower) is on the base circle or back of the cam.

Aircraft Reciprocating Engine Valve Operating Mechanism
Figure 8. Hydraulic valve tappets

[Figure 8] The light plunger spring lifts the hydraulic plunger so that its outer end contacts the push rod socket, exerting a light pressure against it, thus eliminating any clearance in the valve linkage. As the plunger moves outward, the ball check valve moves off its seat. Oil from the supply chamber, which is directly connected with the engine lubrication system, flows in and fills the pressure chamber. As the camshaft rotates, the cam pushes the tappet body and the hydraulic lifter cylinder outward. This action forces the ball check valve onto its seat; thus, the body of oil trapped in the pressure chamber acts as a cushion. During the interval when the engine valve is off its seat, a predetermined leakage occurs between plunger and cylinder bore, which compensates for any expansion or contraction in the valve train. Immediately after the engine valve closes, the amount of oil required to fill the pressure chamber flows in from the supply chamber, preparing for another cycle of operation.

Hydraulic valve lifters are normally adjusted at the time of overhaul. They are assembled dry (no lubrication), clearances checked, and adjustments are usually made by using push rods of different lengths. A minimum and maximum valve clearance is established. Any measurement between these extremes is acceptable, but approximately half way between the extremes is desired. Hydraulic valve lifters require less maintenance, are better lubricated, and operate more quietly than the screw adjustment type.

Push Rod

The push rod, tubular in form, transmits the lifting force from the valve tappet to the rocker arm. A hardened-steel ball is pressed over or into each end of the tube. One ball end fits into the socket of the rocker arm. In some instances, the balls are on the tappet and rocker arm, and the sockets are on the push rod. The tubular form is employed because of its lightness and strength. It permits the engine lubricating oil under pressure to pass through the hollow rod and the drilled ball ends to lubricate the ball ends, rocker-arm bearing, and valve-stem guide. The push rod is enclosed in a tubular housing that extends from the crankcase to the cylinder head, referred to as push rod tubes.

Rocker Arms

The rocker arms transmit the lifting force from the cams to the valves. [Figure 9] Rocker arm assemblies are supported by a plain, roller, or ball bearing, or a combination of these, which serves as a pivot. Generally, one end of the arm bears against the push rod and the other bears on the valve stem. One end of the rocker arm is sometimes slotted to accommodate a steel roller. The opposite end is constructed with either a threaded split clamp and locking bolt or a tapped hole. The arm may have an adjusting screw, for adjusting the clearance between the rocker arm and the valve stem tip. The screw can be adjusted to the specified clearance to make certain that the valve closes fully.

Aircraft Reciprocating Engine Valve Operating Mechanism
Figure 9. Rocker opposed engine arms

Valve Springs

Each valve is closed by two or three helical springs. If a single spring were used, it would vibrate or surge at certain speeds. To eliminate this difficulty, two or more springs (one inside the other) are installed on each valve. Each spring vibrates at a different engine speed and rapid damping out of all spring-surge vibrations during engine operation results. Two or more springs also reduce danger of weakness and possible failure by breakage due to heat and metal fatigue. The springs are held in place by split locks installed in the recess of the valve spring upper retainer or washer, and engage a groove machined into the valve stem. The functions of the valve springs are to close the valve and to hold the valve securely on the valve seat.