Operating the Jet Engine and Efficiency

In a jet engine, thrust is determined by the amount of fuel injected into the combustion chamber. The power controls on most turbojet-and turbofan-powered airplanes consist of just one thrust lever for each engine, because most engine control functions are automatic. The thrust lever is linked to a fuel control and/or electronic engine computer that meters fuel flow based upon revolutions per minute (rpm), internal temperatures, ambient conditions, and other factors. [Figure 1]

Figure 1. Jet engine power controls

In a jet engine, each major rotating section usually has a separate gauge devoted to monitoring its speed of rotation. Depending on the make and model, a jet engine may have an N1 gauge that monitors the low-pressure compressor section and/or fan speed in turbofan engines. The gas generator section may be monitored by an N2 gauge, while triple spool engines may have an N3 gauge as well. Each engine section rotates at many thousands of rpm. Their gauges therefore are calibrated in percent of rpm rather than actual rpm, for ease of display and interpretation. [Figure 2]

Figure 2. Jet engine RPM gauges

The temperature of turbine gases must be closely monitored by the pilot. As in any gas turbine engine, exceeding temperature limits, even for a very few seconds, may result in serious heat damage to turbine blades and other components. Depending on the make and model, gas temperatures can be measured at a number of different locations within the engine. The associated engine gauges therefore have different names according to their location. For instance:
  • Exhaust Gas Temperature (EGT)—the temperature of the exhaust gases as they enter the tail pipe after passing through the turbine.
  • Turbine Inlet Temperature (TIT)—the temperature of the gases from the combustion section of the engine as they enter the first stage of the turbine. The TIT is the highest temperature inside a gas turbine engine and is one of the limiting factors of the amount of power the engine can produce. TIT, however, is difficult to measure. Therefore, EGT, which relates to TIT, is normally the parameter measured.
  • Interstage Turbine Temperature (ITT)—the temperature of the gases between the high-pressure and low-pressure turbine wheels.
  • Turbine Outlet Temperature (TOT)—like EGT, turbine outlet temperature is taken aft of the turbine wheel(s).

Jet Engine Ignition

Most jet engine ignition systems consist of two igniter plugs, which are used during the ground or air starting of the engine. Once the start is completed, this ignition either automatically goes off or is turned off, and from this point on, the combustion in the engine is a continuous process.

Continuous Ignition

An engine is sensitive to the flow characteristics of the air that enters the intake of the engine nacelle. So long as the flow of air is substantially normal, the engine continues to run smoothly. However, particularly with rear-mounted engines that are sometimes in a position to be affected by disturbed airflow from the wings, there are some abnormal flight situations that could cause a compressor stall or flameout of the engine. These abnormal flight conditions would usually be associated with abrupt pitch changes such as might be encountered in severe turbulence or a stall.

In order to avoid the possibility of engine flameout from the above conditions, or from other conditions that might cause ingestion problems, such as heavy rain, ice, or possible bird strike, most jet engines are equipped with a continuous ignition system. This system can be turned on and used continuously whenever the need arises. In many jets, as an added precaution, this system is normally used during takeoffs and landings. Many jets are also equipped with an automatic ignition system that operates both igniters whenever the airplane stall warning or stick shaker is activated.

Fuel Heaters

Because of the high altitudes and extremely cold outside air temperatures in which the jet flies, it is possible to supercool the jet fuel to the point that the small particles of water suspended in the fuel can turn to ice crystals and clog the fuel filters leading to the engine. For this reason, jet engines are normally equipped with fuel heaters. The fuel heater may be of the automatic type that constantly maintains the fuel temperature above freezing, or they may be manually controlled by the pilot.

Setting Power

On some jet airplanes, thrust is indicated by an engine pressure ratio (EPR) gauge. EPR can be thought of as being equivalent to the manifold pressure on the piston engine. EPR is the difference between turbine discharge pressure and engine inlet pressure. It is an indication of what the engine has done with the raw air scooped in. For instance, an EPR setting of 2.24 means that the discharge pressure relative to the inlet pressure is 2.24:1. On these airplanes, the EPR gauge is the primary reference used to establish power settings. [Figure 3]

Figure 3. EPR gauge

Fan speed (N1) is the primary indication of thrust on most turbofan engines. Fuel flow provides a secondary thrust indication, and cross-checking for proper fuel flow can help in spotting a faulty N1 gauge. Turbofans also have a gas generator turbine tachometer (N2). They are used mainly for engine starting and some system functions.

In setting power, it is usually the primary power reference (EPR or N1) that is most critical and is the gauge that first limits the forward movement of the thrust levers. However, there are occasions where the limits of either rpm or temperature can be exceeded. The rule is: movement of the thrust levers must be stopped and power set at whichever the limits of EPR, rpm, or temperature is reached first.

Thrust To Thrust Lever Relationship

In a piston-engine, propeller-driven airplane, thrust is proportional to rpm, manifold pressure, and propeller blade angle, with manifold pressure being the most dominant factor. At a constant rpm, thrust is proportional to throttle lever position. In a jet engine, however, thrust is quite disproportional to thrust lever position. This is an important difference that the pilot transitioning into jet-powered airplanes must become accustomed to.

On a jet engine, thrust is proportional to rpm (mass flow) and temperature (fuel/air ratio). These are matched and a further variation of thrust results from the compressor efficiency at varying rpm. The jet engine is most efficient at high rpm, where the engine is designed to be operated most of the time. As rpm increases, mass flow, temperature, and efficiency also increase. Therefore, much more thrust is produced per increment of throttle movement near the top of the range than near the bottom.

One thing that seems different to the piston pilot transitioning into jet-powered airplanes is the rather large amount of thrust lever movement between the flight idle position and full power as compared to the small amount of movement of the throttle in the piston engine. For instance, an inch of throttle movement on a piston may be worth 400 horsepower wherever the throttle may be. On a jet, an inch of thrust lever movement at a low rpm may be worth only 200 pounds of thrust, but at a high rpm that same inch of movement might amount to closer to 2,000 pounds of thrust. Because of this, in a situation where significantly more thrust is needed and the jet engine is at low rpm, it does not do much good to merely “inch the thrust lever forward.” Substantial thrust lever movement is in order. This is not to say that rough or abrupt thrust lever action is standard operating procedure. If the power setting is already high, it may take only a small amount of movement. However, there are two characteristics of the jet engine that work against the normal habits of the piston-engine pilot. One is the variation of thrust with rpm, and the other is the relatively slow acceleration of the jet engine.

Variation of Thrust with RPM

Whereas piston engines normally operate in the range of 40 percent to 70 percent of available rpm, jets operate most efficiently in the 85 percent to 100 percent range, with a flight idle rpm of 50 percent to 60 percent. The range from 90 percent to 100 percent in jets may produce as much thrust as the total available at 70 percent. [Figure 4]

Figure 4. Variation of thrust with rpm

Slow Acceleration of the Jet Engine

In a propeller-driven airplane, the constant speed propeller keeps the engine turning at a constant rpm within the governing range, and power is changed by varying the manifold pressure. Acceleration of the piston from idle to full power is relatively rapid, somewhere on the order of 3 to 4 seconds. The acceleration on the different jet engines can vary considerably, but it is usually much slower.

Efficiency in a jet engine is highest at high rpm where the compressor is working closest to its optimum conditions. At low rpm, the operating cycle is generally inefficient. If the engine is operating at normal approach rpm and there is a sudden requirement for increased thrust, the jet engine responds immediately and full thrust can be achieved in about 2 seconds. However, at a low rpm, sudden full-power application tends to over fuel the engine resulting in possible compressor surge, excessive turbine temperatures, compressor stall and/or flameout. To prevent this, various limiters, such as compressor bleed valves, are contained in the system and serve to restrict the engine until it is at an rpm at which it can respond to a rapid acceleration demand without distress. This critical rpm is most noticeable when the engine is at idle rpm, and the thrust lever is rapidly advanced to a high-power position. Engine acceleration is initially very slow, but can change to very fast after about 78 percent rpm is reached. [Figure 5]

Figure 5. Typical jet engine acceleration times

Even though engine acceleration is nearly instantaneous after about 78 percent rpm, total time to accelerate from idle rpm to full power may take as much as 8 seconds. For this reason, most jets are operated at a relatively high rpm during the final approach to landing or at any other time that immediate power may be needed.

Key Points