The most efficient method of increasing horsepower in an engine is by using a turbosupercharger or turbocharger. Installed on an engine, this booster uses the engine’s exhaust gases to drive an air compressor to increase the pressure of the air going into the engine through the carburetor or fuel injection system to boost power at higher altitude.


The major disadvantage of the gear-driven supercharger––use of a large amount of the engine’s power output for the amount of power increase produced––is avoided with a turbocharger because turbochargers are powered by an engine’s exhaust gases. This means a turbocharger recovers energy from hot exhaust gases that would otherwise be lost.

A second advantage of turbochargers over superchargers is the ability to maintain control over an engine’s rated sealevel horsepower from sea level up to the engine’s critical altitude. Critical altitude is the maximum altitude at which a turbocharged engine can produce its rated horsepower. Above the critical altitude, power output begins to decrease like it does for a normally aspirated engine.

Turbochargers increase the pressure of the engine’s induction air, which allows the engine to develop sea level or greater horsepower at higher altitudes. A turbocharger is comprised of two main elements: a compressor and turbine. The compressor section houses an impeller that turns at a high rate of speed. As induction air is drawn across the impeller blades, the impeller accelerates the air, allowing a large volume of air to be drawn into the compressor housing. The impeller’s action subsequently produces high-pressure, high-density air that is delivered to the engine. To turn the impeller, the engine’s exhaust gases are used to drive a turbine wheel that is mounted on the opposite end of the impeller’s drive shaft. By directing different amounts of exhaust gases to flow over the turbine, more energy can be extracted, causing the impeller to deliver more compressed air to the engine. The waste gate, essentially an adjustable butterfly valve installed in the exhaust system, is used to vary the mass of exhaust gas flowing into the turbine. When closed, most of the exhaust gases from the engine are forced to flow through the turbine. When open, the exhaust gases are allowed to bypass the turbine by flowing directly out through the engine’s exhaust pipe. [Figure 7-15]

Figure 7-15. Turbocharger components.

Figure 7-15. Turbocharger components. [click image to enlarge]

Since the temperature of a gas rises when it is compressed, turbocharging causes the temperature of the induction air to increase. To reduce this temperature and lower the risk of detonation, many turbocharged engines use an intercooler. This small heat exchanger uses outside air to cool the hot compressed air before it enters the fuel metering device.


System Operation

On most modern turbocharged engines, the position of the waste gate is governed by a pressure-sensing control mechanism coupled to an actuator. Engine oil directed into or away from this actuator moves the waste gate position. On these systems, the actuator is automatically positioned to produce the desired MAP simply by changing the position of the throttle control.

Other turbocharging system designs use a separate manual control to position the waste gate. With manual control, the manifold pressure gauge must be closely monitored to determine when the desired MAP has been achieved. Manual systems are often found on aircraft that have been modified with aftermarket turbocharging systems. These systems require special operating considerations. For example, if the waste gate is left closed after descending from a high altitude, it is possible to produce a manifold pressure that exceeds the engine’s limitations. This condition, called an overboost, may produce severe detonation because of the leaning effect resulting from increased air density during descent.

Although an automatic waste gate system is less likely to experience an overboost condition, it can still occur. If takeoff power is applied while the engine oil temperature is below its normal operating range, the cold oil may not flow out of the waste gate actuator quickly enough to prevent an overboost. To help prevent overboosting, advance the throttle cautiously to prevent exceeding the maximum manifold pressure limits.

A pilot flying an aircraft with a turbocharger should be aware of system limitations. For example, a turbocharger turbine and impeller can operate at rotational speeds in excess of 80,000 rpm while at extremely high temperatures. To achieve high rotational speed, the bearings within the system must be constantly supplied with engine oil to reduce the frictional forces and high temperature. To obtain adequate lubrication, the oil temperature should be in the normal operating range before high throttle settings are applied. In addition, allow the turbocharger to cool and the turbine to slow down before shutting the engine down. Otherwise, the oil remaining in the bearing housing will boil, causing hard carbon deposits to form on the bearings and shaft. These deposits rapidly deteriorate the turbocharger’s efficiency and service life. For further limitations, refer to the AFM/POH.

High Altitude Performance

As an aircraft equipped with a turbocharging system climbs, the waste gate is gradually closed to maintain the maximum allowable manifold pressure. At some point, the waste gate is fully closed and further increases in altitude cause the manifold pressure to decrease. This is the critical altitude, which is established by the aircraft or engine manufacturer. When evaluating the performance of the turbocharging system, be aware that if the manifold pressure begins decreasing before the specified critical altitude, the engine and turbocharging system should be inspected by a qualified aviation maintenance technician (AMT) to verify that the system is operating properly.