A piston engine, or reciprocating engine, is a type of internal combustion engine that utilizes reciprocating pistons in order to transform pressure into a rotational motion. When used for aviation purposes, the piston engine is charged with driving the propeller assembly through the creation of rotational motion, allowing the aircraft to achieve the propulsion necessary for flight. As a common engine type that serves many light and general aviation aircraft, it can be useful to understand their functionality and common types so that the best fit can be found.
While there are numerous types of piston engines available, most share similar components or features that set them apart from other internal combustion engines. In all piston engine types, one or more pistons are contained within a cylinder assembly. With the introduction of fuel and air mixtures, spark plugs within the pistons will create an ignition for the creation of pressure. As the hot gases of the combusted mixture rapidly expand, they push against the piston and drive it downwards. Depending on the engine type, the up and down motion of the pistons may differ, though the ignition of gases creates the necessary force to create rotational motion with the use of the shaft piston engine assembly. Piston engine valve components are also crucial for the operation of the engine as they permit the entry and exit of gases and control timing based on the cycle of the pistons.
Over the years, multiple piston engine types have come about, and each may still be found on various production, experimental, and vintage aircraft. The in-line piston engine is the oldest of the types, and they feature their cylinders in a line assembly. With this configuration of parts, the engine permits a narrower fuselage nose for the aircraft. As airflow for such engines is not enough for proper thermal management, liquid cooling systems are required.
Rotary engines were developed for military aircraft during World War I, and they are often designed with an odd number of cylinders in each row. While the crankshaft remains immobile during operations, the entire crankcase and cylinder assembly rotates alongside the propellers. With this method of operations, air flow is increased for ample cooling.
V-type engines have the appearance of two in-line engines which are connected to form a “V” configuration, and cylinder assemblies are held together through the use of a common crankshaft. V-type engines are often categorized by the number of cylinders that they have in each bank, and common types include V6, V8, and V12 engines. While many V-type piston engines served aircraft for years, automobiles have since become the most common application for such internal combustion engines.
A radial engine is a type in which an odd number of cylinders are placed in rows which encircle a central crankshaft. As the crankcase is small, radial engines have a higher power-to-weight ratio as compared to their older counterparts. With the placement of cylinders, smooth operations may be achieved and airflow is ample enough to serve as the primary thermal management method.
Horizontally opposed engines are the final common piston engine type, and they are sometimes referred to as boxer or flat engines. With such types, the cylinders and pistons are placed on opposite sides of a central crankshaft such as is seen on a V-type engine, though the angle between cylinders is 180 degrees. Such configurations promote increased airflow and reliable operations, and horizontally opposed engines are often fairly simple to maintain.
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