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How A Turbocharger Works


There are several advantages to flying at high altitude, like decreased drag, faster true airspeed, and if you're pointed the right direction, higher tailwinds. But there's one major disadvantage for normally aspirated engines: a lack of oxygen.

The High Altitude Problem

As you increase altitude, air pressure decreases, and it decreases quickly. In fact, if you're flying at 18,000 feet, 50% of the atmosphere is below you. That means less air for your engine to burn, and a lot less horsepower that's coming out of the front of your airplane.


Solving The Thin Air Problem

Turbochargers solve the thin air problem in piston-driven engines by compressing intake air before it reaches the cylinder. By compressing the air, your engine can run like it's sitting at sea level or lower, even when it's operating in the flight levels.

How A Turbocharger Works

Turbochargers have three main components:

  • Turbine
  • Compressor
  • Shaft that connects the two together

It all starts with the turbine, which is driven (turned) by exhaust gas exiting your engine. As exhaust exits through the exhaust manifold, it passes over the turbine and spins it. The more exhaust that passes through, the faster the turbine spins. That's pretty much how it works, at least for now.

A shaft connects the turbine and the compressor, so when the turbine starts spinning as the engine is started, the compressor starts spinning too.

The compressor is in charge of drawing in air from outside the airplane, compressing it, and then transferring it into the engine. And as you've already read, the compressor is spinning because it's connected to the turbine, through a shaft.

Now that you know the basics of a turbocharger, there are a few more pieces to cover.

Wasting Air Through The Wastegate

Turbochargers are good at increasing the air pressure in your engine's intake manifold, known as manifold pressure. But sometimes they're a little too good. Turbochargers are capable of producing too much manifold pressure, which can damage or destroy your engine.

So how do turbochargers prevent too much air from entering your engine? With something called a wastegate.

Some wastegates are automatic, and others are manually operated by the pilot, but the theory behind them is always the same. A wastegate opens and closes to regulate the amount of exhaust gas that passes over the turbine, and prevents the turbine from spinning too fast. The faster the turbine spins, the faster the compressor spins, meaning more air that enters your engine.


How Much Air Can Your Engine Handle?

So how much air can your engine really handle? It depends on the engine, but there are two main types of turbocharging: altitude turbocharging, and ground boosting.

Altitude Turbocharging
Altitude turbocharging, which is sometimes called 'normalizing', keeps your engine running like it's at sea level for as long as possible. It depends on the engine, but most altitude turbochargers keep your manifold pressure between 29-30 inches of mercury (sea level pressure) as you climb in altitude.

But eventually, as your altitude increases, your turbocharger isn't able to compress enough air to keep your manifold pressure at sea level. This is called the critical altitude, and it's the highest altitude where your engine can produce the maximum horsepower it's rated for (engine horsepower is rated at sea level).

From this point, as you climb higher, less air will enter your engine. That means you'll produce less horsepower. But it's still much more effective than a normally aspirated engine.

Ground Boosting
Ground boosting is similar to altitude turbocharging, but it uses more pressure. Boosted systems typically run at manifold pressures between 31-45 inches of mercury, which is much more than altitude turbochargers. The idea is simple: more pressure = more air entering the engine = more horsepower output.

But the disadvantage is a big one: lots of heat.


Turbochargers And Their Heat Problems

As you compress air, it heats up. This is one of the biggest disadvantages of any turbocharger. Aircraft engines already operate at hot temperatures, and hot intake air makes them even worse. To solve the problem, many turbochargers use something called an intercooler.

An intercooler is basically a mini air-conditioner that's placed between the turbocharger and the engine. As the hot air moves from the turbo to the engine, it passes through the intercooler, and the temperature significantly drops. That cooler air makes your engine much happier, and keeps it running smoothly.


The High Altitude Advantage

Turbochargers are the key to piston-driven airplanes climbing to high altitude. While they add some complexity to an engine system, they're about the only thing that can get a piston-driven plane up to the flight levels for strong tailwinds, higher true airspeed, and views like this:


Colin Cutler

Colin Cutler

Colin is a Boldmethod co-founder and lifelong pilot. He's been a flight instructor at the University of North Dakota, an airline pilot on the CRJ-200, and has directed the development of numerous commercial and military training systems. You can reach him at

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