RC jet engines represent some of the most impressive technology that the RC industry has ever created. RC jets are always an amazing sight at the flying field, because they look and sound just like the real jets you find at airports and military airfields. In this article, we will take a look at how model jet engines work, and show you the differences from full scale jet engines.
Before you go out an buy a jet, be warned that RC jets are some of the most complicated, expensive, and difficult RC model airplanes available. You will need both many hours of flying experience and a huge budget to successfully own and fly an RC jet.
This article is about real jet engines which burn kerosene (or jet A1), not the electric ducted fan models frequently found in hobby stores. EDF jets are great models to fly, and some are capable of advanced aerobatics, but they are not to be confused with real RC jets using real jet engines.
How Full Scale Jet Engines Work
In order to understand how model jet engines work, it is helpful to examine the full scale engines used by airliners and other jet aircraft. A jet engine is a device which operates inside a fluid (in most cases air), and expels it at high speed achieving a propulsive effect. The mechanics of jet engines are best represented by Newton’s laws of motion, specifically: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” This means that the reason jets go forward is because they expel air backwards, faster than it came in. This basic principle applies for all types of jet engines.
But how do we achieve the movement of air needed to propel an aircraft? We know from high school chemistry that the volume and the temperature of any gas are proportional. Because of this, when air is heated, the volume increases. If the air is held in a container (the combustion chamber of a jet engine), then the pressure will also increase. Releasing the heated gas will result in an exit speed greater than the speed at which the air entered, creating the backwards flow of air needed to travel forward.
Interestingly enough, rockets are considered to be a type of jet engine. The only difference between a rocket and a conventional jet engine is that the rocket operates in a vacuum, and thus needs to take both fuel and an oxidizing chemical with it. The discussion of rockets and other exotic jet engines is beyond the scope of this article, so we will limit our investigation to three of the most common designs. These jet engines are listed in order of complexity, and all were used in full scale aircraft at some point in time.
The Pulse Jet
The pulse jet is one of the simplest jet engines, consisting of little more than a pipe and a fuel source. Pulse jets were used by Germany during World War II to propel primitive cruise missiles (V1 flying bombs). A pulse jet works by igniting a fuel air mixture in high frequency bursts. A typical pulse jet cycle operates as follows:
- Air is allowed to enter the combustion chamber, and fuel is simultaneously added.
- The intake valve is closed.
- Ignition is triggered, resulting in an outward flow of air and low pressure inside the combustion chamber.
- The valve is opened, and new air rushes in due to the low pressure in the combustion chamber.
This cycle repeats during the entire operation of the engine.
Pulse jets are not very efficient, and are extremely loud. Because of this they are not often used in full scale aircraft, but hobbiests often build them due to their design simplicity and lack of moving parts. In some cases, pulse jets are built to small dimensions and used on RC model airplanes.
More sophisticated jet engines use turbines to compress the air fuel mixture before igniting it. A turbine is a device which consists of sets of moving blades attached to an axle. If the turbine blades are spinning, they will move air through themselves and towards the back of the vehicle. This figure shows a moving turbine, spinning on an axle.
The operation of a turbojet is represented in this figure.
Unlike pulse jets, turbojets lack a repeating cycle (the engine operates continuously). There is a sequence of events that occurs during the engines operation though, so we list them here in chronological order.
- Air enters the turbine and becomes compressed.
- The compressed air is routed to the combustion chamber, where is is mixed with fuel.
- Ignition occurs, and the resulting hot air is allowed to exit the jet engine.
- Before leaving the engine, the hot air is forced through a gas turbine, which drives the compressor used in step 1.
Turbojets are far more efficient than pulse jets, because some of the energy produced by the combustion process is reused
Even though turbojet engines are more efficient than pulse jets, they are not often used in subsonic aircraft because of the noise they produce. Turbojet engines are well suited to high speed operations, exceeding the speed of sound. They become less efficient at the subsonic speeds which airliners and other commercial jet aircraft operate at.
The turbofan design operates on exactly the same principle as the turbojet engine, but instead of routing all of the intake air through the combustion chamber a small amount is allowed to exit unburned. Instead of being mixed with fuel and burned, some of the cool air is mixed with the exhaust, reducing the exhaust speed and increasing fuel efficiency. This figure illustrates the operation of a turbofan jet engine:
How Model Jet Engines Work
RC Model airplane jet engines work in exactly the same way as the full scale ones discussed above, with the exception of the air compression. Instead of using an axial turbine compressor, RC jet engines use a centrifugal compressor. A centrifugal compressor propels air outwards after it enters the engine, causing it to hit the engine case and be compressed. Centrifugal compressors need fewer moving parts than axial turbine compressors, and are more efficient for small applications. Many small full scale jets use centrifugal compressors for the same reasons.
Here is a picture of a typical RC model airplane jet engine, mounted on top of an RC model airplane.
RC jet engines operate on kerosene, exactly the same fuel that full scale jet engines use. Ignition is achieved with a small glow plug, like those found on two and four stroke RC model airplane engines.
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