World War i Plane Engines

With aviation beginning in 1903 when Orville and Wilbur Wright had their first successful flight, the task of creating the best engine for a plane began. When the First World War began in 1914, this task to design aircraft engines became a race, engineers and scientists alike were working as fast as they could to power their countrys planes so that they could control the skies before anyone else. Because of this, there was a prominent number of significant developments in the aircraft engine that happened during the war. – Jake Powers

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Due to how quickly the war began, briefly after planes even came into existence, and there being sparse numbers of aviation companies, may automobile manufacturers and designers had to get into the business. One of these men was Charles Lawrence. Charles was a successful race car engine designer that was drawn to develop new aircraft engines. In 1917 he began his own company, Lawrence Aero-Engine Corporation. He first designed the engine for the Army Penguin trainer. This engine was a 2 cylinder, air-cooled engine with 28 horsepower and weighed almost 200 pounds. Due to his successful design, the Navy and Army continued to ask Lawrence to design more engines for them, which lead to many new models. Eventually, Lawrence designed new J and R models that were the first air-cooled radial engines developed in the United States. The J model weighed 476 pounds, created 200 horsepower, and a 9 cylinder that displaced 12.9 liters. – Jake Powers

Another automobile manufacturer that got involved with the creation of aviation engines was Packard Automobile Company. With the war already under way, the president of the company, Henry Joy grew concern that America would be involved. So, in December, 1914, the chief engine designer, Jesse Vincent, decided to combine two 6 cylinder engines into a V-12. The prototype was first tested on a smaller scale in race cars, however eventually, the engine was upscaled to a 905 cu. in. displacement, giving it the name 905. It produced 110 horsepower and weighed 817 pounds. The 905 was first used in automobiles but, in May of 1917, the Army adopted a V-8 variant of the 905 as its standard aircraft engine and later became known as the Liberty engine. The final design was first assembled and run on July 23, 1917 and eventually set a new American altitude record. – Jake Powers

One of the main engines used in aircraft during the war was the Gnome rotary engine, or variants of it. This engine was first designed in 1907 by an american name Farwell and later improved upon by French brothers Laurent and Louis Sequin. The first commercial design utilized 7 cylinders, was air cooled, and produced 50 horsepower from the 8.0 liter engine that weighed 172 pounds. The engine used nickel steel for corrosion resistance and to protect it from high temperature operation.

During the war, the Gnome rotary engine design was continuously improved upon. The main issue that engineers had with the rotary design was the total oil loss system. The oil loss was caused by centrifugal force throwing the oil out of the engine through the seals. This flaw would cause the engines to quickly lose engine oil that helps lubricate parts, cool the engine, and remove contaminants from the engine. In these engines that could run at relatively high RPMs for the time, running low on oil caused immediate engine failure and could potentially kill whoever was flying the aircraft. Because of this, the range of the aircraft was limited by how much oil the plane could carry, as well as fuel.

Another flaw to the rotary design was stability, because the pistons moved in a circular pattern and weighed a substantial amount, the engine caused a large inertial moment that could move the entire plane in the direction of rotation during flight, this caused many handling problems, specifically when trying to turn in the opposite direction that the engines rotation was in.

However, there were notable advantages to the Gnome rotary engine such as having no flywheel. This significantly reduced the weight of the engine and allowed smooth operation. The engine was also air-cooled, this cut down on even more weight compared to many engines at the time that were water-cooled. An interesting aspect of the Gnome engine is that it had intake valves that were located within the pistons, yet it followed the Otto four stroke cycle.


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World War I Plane Engines. (2019, May 02). Retrieved December 4, 2022 , from

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