Airbreathing jet engine

Airbreathing jet engine

An airbreathing jet engine (or ducted jet engine) is a jet engine propelled by a jet of hot exhaust gases formed from air that is drawn into the engine via an inlet duct.

All practical airbreathing jet engines are internal combustion engines that directly heat the air by combusting fuel, with the resultant hot gases used for propulsion via a propulsive nozzle, although other techniques for heating the air have been experimented with. Most jet engines are turbofans and some are turbojets which use gas turbines to give high pressure ratios and are able to get high efficiency, but a few use simple ram effect or pulse combustion to give compression.

Most commercial aircraft possess turbofans, these have an enlarged air compressor which permit them to generate most of their thrust from air which bypasses the combustion chamber.

Airbreathing jet engines are mostly used for powering jet aircraft, but have seen rare other uses such as jet cars.


Types of airbreathing jet engines

Airbreathing jet engines are nearly always internal combustion engines that obtain propulsion from the combustion of fuel inside the engine. Oxygen present in the atmosphere is used to oxidise a fuel source, typically a hydrocarbon-based jet fuel.[1] The burning mixture expands greatly in volume, driving heated air through a propelling nozzle.

Gas turbine powered engines:

Ram powered jet engine:

Pulsed combustion jet engine:

Turbojet engine

Turbojet engine layout

The turbojet is the oldest kind of general-purpose jet engine. Two engineers, Frank Whittle in the United Kingdom and Hans von Ohain in Germany, developed the concept independently into practical engines during the late 1930s.

Turbojets consist of an air inlet, an air compressor, a combustion chamber, a gas turbine (that drives the air compressor) and a nozzle. The air is compressed into the chamber, heated and expanded by the fuel combustion and then allowed to expand out through the turbine into the nozzle where it is accelerated to high speed to provide propulsion.[2]

Turbojets are quite inefficient if flown below about Mach 2,[citation needed] and very noisy.[citation needed] Most modern aircraft use turbofans instead for economic reasons. Turbojets are still very common in medium range cruise missiles,[citation needed] due to their high exhaust speed, low frontal area and relative simplicity.

Turbofan engine

an animated turbofan engine

Most modern jet engines are actually turbofans, where the low pressure compressor acts as a fan, supplying supercharged air not only to the engine core, but to a bypass duct. The bypass airflow either passes to a separate 'cold nozzle' or mixes with low pressure turbine exhaust gases, before expanding through a 'mixed flow nozzle'.

In the 1960s there was little difference between civil and military jet engines, apart from the use of afterburning in some (supersonic) applications. Today, turbofans are used for airliners because they give an exhaust speed that is better matched for subsonic airliners. At airliner flight speeds, conventional turbojet engines generate an exhaust that ends up traveling very fast backwards (rocket engines are worse still), and this wastes energy. By emitting the exhaust so that it ends up traveling more slowly, better fuel consumption is achieved as well as higher thrust at low speeds. In addition, the lower exhaust speed gives much lower noise.

Thus civil turbofans today have a low exhaust speed (low specific thrust -net thrust divided by airflow) to keep jet noise to a minimum and to improve fuel efficiency. Consequently the bypass ratio (bypass flow divided by core flow) is relatively high (ratios from 4:1 up to 8:1 are common). Only a single fan stage is required, because a low specific thrust implies a low fan pressure ratio.

Military turbofans, however, have a relatively high specific thrust, to maximize the thrust for a given frontal area, jet noise being of less concern in military uses relative to civil uses. Multistage fans are normally needed to reach the relatively high fan pressure ratio needed for high specific thrust. Although high turbine inlet temperatures are often employed, the bypass ratio tends to be low, usually significantly less than 2.0.

Major components

Basic components of a jet engine (Axial flow design)

The major components of a jet engine are similar across the major different types of engines, although not all engine types have all components. The major parts include:

  • Cold Section:
    • Air intake (Inlet)—For subsonic aircraft, the air intake to a jet engine consists essentially of an opening which is designed to minimise drag. The air reaching the compressor of a normal jet engine must be travelling below the speed of sound, even for supersonic aircraft, to allow smooth flow through compressor and turbine blades. At supersonic flight speeds, shockwaves form in the intake system. These help compress the air, but also there is inevitable reduction in the recovered pressure at inlet to the compressor. Some supersonic intakes use devices such as a cone or a ramp to increase pressure recovery.
    • Compressor or Fan—The compressor is made up of stages. Each stage consists of vanes which rotate, and stators which remain stationary. As air is drawn deeper through the compressor, its heat and pressure increases. Energy is derived from the turbine (see below), passed along the shaft.
    • Bypass ducts—Much of the thrust of essentially all modern jet engines comes from air from the front compressor that bypasses the combustion chamber and gas turbine section that leads directly to the nozzle or afterburner (where fitted).
  • Common:
    • Shaft—The shaft connects the turbine to the compressor, and runs most of the length of the engine. There may be as many as three concentric shafts, rotating at independent speeds, with as many sets of turbines and compressors. Other services, like a bleed of cool air, may also run down the shaft.
  • Diffuser section: - This section is a divergent duct that utilizes Bernoulli's principle to decrease the velocity of the compressed air to allow for easier ignition. And, at the same time, continuing to increase the air pressure before it enters the combustion chamber.
  • Hot section:
    • Combustor or Can or Flameholders or Combustion Chamber—This is a chamber where fuel is continuously burned in the compressed air.
    • A blade with internal cooling as applied in the high-pressure turbine
      Turbine—The turbine is a series of bladed discs that act like a windmill, gaining energy from the hot gases leaving the combustor. Some of this energy is used to drive the compressor, and in some turbine engines (i.e. turboprop, turboshaft or turbofan engines), energy is extracted by additional turbine discs and used to drive devices such as propellers, bypass fans or helicopter rotors. One type, a free turbine, is configured such that the turbine disc driving the compressor rotates independently of the discs that power the external components. Relatively cool air, bled from the compressor, may be used to cool the turbine blades and vanes, to prevent them from melting.
    • Afterburner or reheat (chiefly UK)—(mainly military) Produces extra thrust by burning extra fuel, usually inefficiently, to significantly raise Nozzle Entry Temperature at the exhaust. Owing to a larger volume flow (i.e. lower density) at exit from the afterburner, an increased nozzle flow area is required, to maintain satisfactory engine matching, when the afterburner is alight.
    • Exhaust or Nozzle—Hot gases leaving the engine exhaust expand to atmospheric pressure via a nozzle, the objective being to produce a high velocity jet. In most cases, the nozzle is convergent and of fixed flow area. If the Nozzle Pressure Ratio (Nozzle Entry Pressure/Ambient Pressure) is very high, to maximize thrust it may be worthwhile, despite the additional weight, to fit a convergent-divergent (de Laval) nozzle- a supersonic nozzle. As the name suggests, initially this type of nozzle is convergent, but beyond the throat (smallest flow area), the flow area starts to increase to form the divergent portion. The expansion to atmospheric pressure and supersonic gas velocity continues downstream of the throat, whereas in a convergent nozzle the expansion beyond sonic velocity occurs externally, in the exhaust plume. The former process is more efficient than the latter.

The various components named above have constraints on how they are put together to generate the most efficiency or performance. The performance and efficiency of an engine can never be taken in isolation; for example fuel/distance efficiency of a supersonic jet engine maximises at about Mach 2, whereas the drag for the vehicle carrying it is increasing as a square law and has much extra drag in the transonic region. The highest fuel efficiency for the overall vehicle is thus typically at Mach ~0.85.

For the engine optimisation for its intended use, important here is air intake design, overall size, number of compressor stages (sets of blades), fuel type, number of exhaust stages, metallurgy of components, amount of bypass air used, where the bypass air is introduced, and many other factors. For instance, let us consider design of the air intake.


Engine cycle

Brayton cycle

The thermodynamics of a typical air-breathing jet engine are modeled approximately by a Brayton Cycle which is a thermodynamic cycle that describes the workings of the gas turbine engine, basis of the airbreathing jet engine and others. It is named after George Brayton (1830–1892), the American engineer who developed it, although it was originally proposed and patented by Englishman John Barber in 1791.[3] It is also sometimes known as the Joule cycle.

Thrust lapse

The nominal net thrust quoted for a jet engine usually refers to the Sea Level Static (SLS) condition, either for the International Standard Atmosphere (ISA) or a hot day condition (e.g. ISA+10 °C). As an example, the GE90-76B has a take-off static thrust of 76,000 lbf (360 kN) at SLS, ISA+15 °C.

Naturally, net thrust will decrease with altitude, because of the lower air density. There is also, however, a flight speed effect.

Initially as the aircraft gains speed down the runway, there will be little increase in nozzle pressure and temperature, because the ram rise in the intake is very small. There will also be little change in mass flow. Consequently, nozzle gross thrust initially only increases marginally with flight speed. However, being an air breathing engine (unlike a conventional rocket) there is a penalty for taking on-board air from the atmosphere. This is known as ram drag. Although the penalty is zero at static conditions, it rapidly increases with flight speed causing the net thrust to be eroded.

As flight speed builds up after take-off, the ram rise in the intake starts to have a significant effect upon nozzle pressure/temperature and intake airflow, causing nozzle gross thrust to climb more rapidly. This term now starts to offset the still increasing ram drag, eventually causing net thrust to start to increase. In some engines, the net thrust at say Mach 1.0, sea level can even be slightly greater than the static thrust. Above Mach 1.0, with a subsonic inlet design, shock losses tend to decrease net thrust, however a suitably designed supersonic inlet can give a lower reduction in intake pressure recovery, allowing net thrust to continue to climb in the supersonic regime.

Safety and reliability

Jet engines are usually very reliable and have a very good safety record. However, failures do sometimes occur.

Engine surge

In some cases in jet engines the conditions in the engine due to airflow entering the engine or other variations can cause the compressor blades to stall. When this occurs the pressure in the engine blows out past the blades, and the stall is maintained until the pressure has decreased, and the engine has lost all thrust. The compressor blades will then usually come out of stall, and re-pressurize the engine. If conditions are not corrected, the cycle will usually repeat. This is called surge. Depending on the engine this can be highly damaging to the engine and creates worrying vibrations for the crew.

Compressor blade containment

Due to "foreign object damage"- material being sucked into the engine- the most likely failure is often compressor blade failure, and modern jet engines are designed with structures that can catch these blades and keep them contained within the engine casing. Verification of a jet engine design involves testing that this system works correctly.

Bird strike

Bird strike is an aviation term for a collision between a bird and an aircraft. It is a common threat to aircraft safety and has caused a number of fatal accidents. In 1988 an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 sucked pigeons into both engines during take-off and then crashed in an attempt to return to the Bahir Dar airport; of the 104 people aboard, 35 died and 21 were injured. In another incident in 1995, a Dassault Falcon 20 crashed at a Paris airport during an emergency landing attempt after sucking lapwings into an engine, which caused an engine failure and a fire in the airplane fuselage; all 10 people on board were killed. In 2009, on US Airways Flight 1549, a Airbus A320 aircraft sucked in one bird in each engine. The plane landed in the Hudson River after taking off from LaGuardia International Airport in New York City. There were no fatalities.[4]

Modern jet engines have the capability of surviving an ingestion of a bird. Small fast planes, such as military jet fighters, are at higher risk than big heavy multi-engine ones. This is due to the fact that the fan of a high-bypass turbofan engine, typical on transport aircraft, acts as a centrifugal separator to force ingested materials (birds, ice, etc.) to the outside of the fan's disc. As a result, such materials go through the relatively unobstructed bypass duct, rather than through the core of the engine, which contains the smaller and more delicate compressor blades. Military aircraft designed for high-speed flight typically have pure turbojet, or low-bypass turbofan engines, increasing the risk that ingested materials will get into the core of the engine to cause damage.

The highest risk of the bird strike is during the takeoff and landing, in low altitudes, which is in the vicinity of the airports.

Volcanic ash

If a jet plane is flying through air densely contaminated with volcanic ash, there is risk of ingested ash eroding the front blades, melting in the combustion heat, and re-freezing sticking to the rear blades, affecting performance and perhaps stopping the engine; as well as triggering long-term corrosion.[5]

Uncontained failures

One class of failures that has caused accidents in particular is uncontained failures, where rotary parts of the engine break off and exit through the case. These can cut fuel or control lines, and can penetrate the cabin. Although fuel and control lines are usually duplicated for reliability, the crash of United Airlines Flight 232 was caused when hydraulic fluid lines for all three independent hydraulic systems were simultaneously severed by shrapnel from an uncontained engine failure. Prior to the United 232 crash, the probability of a simultaneous failure of all three hydraulic systems was considered as high as a billion-to-one. However, the statistical models used to come up with this figure did not account for the fact that the number-two engine was mounted at the tail close to all the hydraulic lines, nor the possibility that an engine failure would release many fragments in many directions. Since then, more modern aircraft engine designs have focused on keeping shrapnel from penetrating the cowling or ductwork, and have increasingly utilized high-strength composite materials to achieve the required penetration resistance while keeping the weight low.

Economic considerations

In 2007, the cost of jet fuel, while highly variable from one airline to another, averaged 26.5% of total operating costs, making it the single largest operating expense for most airlines.[6]

Environmental considerations

Jet engines are usually run on fossil fuel propellant, and are thus a source of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Jet engines can use biofuels or hydrogen, although the production of the latter is usually made from fossil fuels.

About 7.2% of the oil used in 2004 was consumed by jet engines.[7]

Some scientists[who?] believe that jet engines are also a source of global dimming due to the water vapour in the exhaust causing cloud formations[citation needed].

Nitrogen compounds are also formed from the combustion process from atmospheric nitrogen. At low altitudes this is not thought to be especially harmful, but for supersonic aircraft that fly in the stratosphere some destruction of ozone may occur.

Sulphates are also emitted if the fuel contains sulphur.

Advanced designs


A ramjet is a form of airbreathing jet engine using the engine's forward motion to compress incoming air, without a rotary compressor. Ramjets cannot produce thrust at zero airspeed and thus cannot move an aircraft from a standstill. Ramjets require considerable forward speed to operate well, and as a class work most efficiently at speeds around Mach 3. This type of jet can operate up to speeds of Mach 6.

Ramjets can be particularly useful in applications requiring a small and simple engine for high speed use, such as missiles, while weapon designers are looking to use ramjet technology in artillery shells to give added range: it is anticipated that a 120-mm mortar shell, if assisted by a ramjet, could attain a range of 22 mi (35 km).[8] They have also been used successfully, though not efficiently, as tip jets on helicopter rotors.[9]

Ramjets are frequently confused with pulsejets, which use an intermittent combustion, but ramjets employ a continuous combustion process, and are a quite distinct type of jet engine.

J-58 combined ramjet/turbojet

The SR-71 Blackbird's Pratt & Whitney J58 engines were rather unusual. They could convert in flight from being largely a turbojet to being largely a compressor-assisted ramjet. At high speeds (above Mach 2.4), the engine used variable geometry vanes to direct excess air through 6 bypass pipes from downstream of the fourth compressor stage into the afterburner.[10] 80% of the SR-71's thrust at high speed was generated in this way, giving much higher thrust, improving specific impulse by 10-15%, and permitting continuous operation at Mach 3.2. The name coined for this setup is turbo-ramjet.

Hydrogen fuelled air-breathing jet engines

Jet engines can be run on almost any fuel. Hydrogen is a highly desirable fuel, as, although the energy per mole is not unusually high, the molecule is very much lighter than other molecules. The energy per kg of hydrogen is twice that of more common fuels and this gives twice the specific impulse. In addition, jet engines running on hydrogen are quite easy to build—the first ever turbojet was run on hydrogen. Also, although not duct engines, hydrogen-fueled rocket engines have seen extensive use.

However, in almost every other way, hydrogen is problematic. The downside of hydrogen is its density; in gaseous form the tanks are impractical for flight, but even in the form of liquid hydrogen it has a density one fourteenth that of water. It is also deeply cryogenic and requires very significant insulation that precludes it being stored in wings. The overall vehicle would end up being very large, and difficult for most airports to accommodate. Finally, pure hydrogen is not found in nature, and must be manufactured either via steam reforming or expensive electrolysis. Nevertheless, research is ongoing and hydrogen-fueled aircraft designs do exist that may be feasible.[11]

Precooled jet engines

An idea originated by Robert P. Carmichael in 1955[12] is that hydrogen-fueled engines could theoretically have much higher performance than hydrocarbon-fueled engines if a heat exchanger were used to cool the incoming air. The low temperature allows lighter materials to be used, a higher mass-flow through the engines, and permits combustors to inject more fuel without overheating the engine.

This idea leads to plausible designs like Reaction Engines SABRE, that might permit single-stage-to-orbit launch vehicles,[13] and ATREX, which could permit jet engines to be used up to hypersonic speeds and high altitudes for boosters for launch vehicles. The idea is also being researched by the EU for a concept to achieve non-stop antipodal supersonic passenger travel at Mach 5 (Reaction Engines A2).

Nuclear-powered ramjet

Project Pluto was a nuclear-powered ramjet, intended for use in a cruise missile. Rather than combusting fuel as in regular jet engines, air was heated using a high-temperature, unshielded nuclear reactor. This dramatically increased the engine burn time, and the ramjet was predicted to be able to cover any required distance at supersonic speeds (Mach 3 at tree-top height).

However, there was no obvious way to stop it once it had taken off, which would be a great disadvantage in any non-disposable application. Also, because the reactor was unshielded, it was dangerous to be in or around the flight path of the vehicle (although the exhaust itself wasn't radioactive). These disadvantages limit the application to warhead delivery system for all-out nuclear war, which it was being designed for.


Scramjets are an evolution of ramjets that are able to operate at much higher speeds than any other kind of airbreathing engine. They share a similar structure with ramjets, being a specially shaped tube that compresses air with no moving parts through ram-air compression. Scramjets, however, operate with supersonic airflow through the entire engine. Thus, scramjets do not have the diffuser required by ramjets to slow the incoming airflow to subsonic speeds.

Scramjets start working at speeds of at least Mach 4, and have a maximum useful speed of approximately Mach 17.[14] Due to aerodynamic heating at these high speeds, cooling poses a challenge to engineers.


The air turborocket is a form of combined-cycle jet engine. The basic layout includes a gas generator, which produces high pressure gas, that drives a turbine/compressor assembly which compresses atmospheric air into a combustion chamber. This mixture is then combusted before leaving the device through a nozzle and creating thrust.

There are many different types of air turborockets. The various types generally differ in how the gas generator section of the engine functions.

Air turborockets are often referred to as turboramjets, turboramjet rockets, turborocket expanders, and many others. As there is no consensus on which names apply to which specific concepts, various sources may use the same name for two different concepts.[15]


To describe the RPM of a jet engine, abbreviations are commonly used:

  • For a turboprop engine, Np refers to the RPM of the propeller shaft. For example, a common Np would be about 2200 RPM for a constant speed propeller.
  • N1 or Ng refers to the speed of the gas generator (gas producer) section (RPM). Each engine manufacturer will pick between those two abbreviation but N1 is mainly used for turbofan engines whereas Ng is mainly used for turboprop or turboshaft engines. For example, a common Np would be on the order of 30,000 RPM.
  • N2 or Nf refers to the speed of the power turbine section. Each engine manufacturer will pick between those two abbreviations but N2 is mainly used for turbofan engine where Nf is mainly used for turboprop or turboshaft engines. In many cases, even for free turbine engines, the N1 and N2 may be very similar.[citation needed]
  • Ns refers to the speed of the reduction gear box (RGB) output shaft for turboshaft engines.[16][17]

In many cases, instead of expressing N-speeds (N1, N2) as a sheer RPM on cockpit displays, pilots are provided with the N-speeds expressed as a percentage of a nominal or maximal value. For example, at full power, the N1 might be 101.5% or 100%. This user interface decision has been made as a human factors consideration, since pilots are more likely to notice a problem with a two- or 3-digit percentage (where 100% implies a nominal value) than with a large, unbounded scalar number.

See also

  • rocket engine
  • turboprop engine a gas turbine engine used to turn propellers
  • turboshaft engine a gas turbine engine used for helicopters
  • water jet


  1. ^ Angelo, Joseph A. (2004). The Facts on File dictionary of space technology (3 ed.). Infobase Publishing. p. 14. ISBN 0-8160-5222-0. 
  2. ^ "Turbojet Engine". NASA Glenn Research Center. Retrieved 2009-05-06. 
  3. ^ according to Gas Turbine History
  4. ^ "Transport Canada - Sharing the Skies". 2010-01-06. Retrieved 2010-03-26. 
  5. ^ Icelandic volcanic ash alert grounds UK flights, BBC News, 15 April 2010.
  6. ^ U.S. Airlines: Operating in an Era of High Jet Fuel Prices
  7. ^ "How many air-miles are left in the world’s fuel tank?". 2005-06-29. Retrieved 2010-03-26. 
  8. ^ McNab, Chris; Hunter Keeter (2008). Tools of Violence: Guns, Tanks and Dirty Bombs. Osprey Publishing. p. 145. ISBN 1846032253. 
  9. ^ "Here Comes the Flying Stovepipe". TIME. 26 November 1965.,9171,834721,00.html. Retrieved 2008-03-09. 
  10. ^ "J58". Retrieved 2010-03-26. 
  11. ^ e.g. Reaction engines A2 hypersonic airliner
  12. ^ "NASA history Other Interests in Hydrogen". 1955-10-21. Retrieved 2010-03-26. 
  13. ^ "The Skylon Spaceplane" (PDF). Retrieved 2010-03-26. 
  14. ^ "Astronautix X30". Retrieved 2010-03-26. 
  15. ^ Heiser and Pratt, p. 457
  16. ^ PRATT & WHITNEY CANADA MAINTENANCE MANUAL - MANUAL PART NO. 3017042 - Introduction - Page 6
  17. ^ Email from subject matter expert - Sr. Field Support Representative, Pratt & Whitney Canada Worldwide Support Network 12 Jan 2010

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