WHY ARE MAGNETOS IN AIRCRAFT?

WHY ARE MAGNETOS IN AIRCRAFT?

By Harry Fenton, Director of Business Development and Product Support, Kelly Aero


Today’s world is dominated by modern, high-tech smart electronics that can be found in every device
imaginable from toothbrushes to spacecraft operating billions of miles away from Earth. General
Aviation airplanes are equipped with the latest glass panel, GPS driven avionics that have more
computing capability than any manned space vehicle that was sent to the moon. Aviation has
historically been on the cutting edge of the newest and best technology found in the cockpit, so the
expectation is that there should be an equally new technology applied to the aircraft engine and its
systems. But, cutting-edge engine technology has been stubbornly slow to change piston aircraft
engines.


In particular, why is it that mechanical magnetos- which have been in use on reciprocating engines for
over 125 years- are still being used as the primary ignition systems for piston-engine aircraft? With all of
the modern technology at our fingertips, why isn’t there something better? Auto engines have not used
contact points for a few generations. It is likely that the parents of the high school students learning to
drive today never drove or owned a car with an engine using a mechanical ignition system. Mention
Magneto to these generations and the only reference they will have is a Marvel comic book character.
Yet, magnetos remain the most prevalent ignition system used for aircraft engines. If asked, most
aviation enthusiasts believe that aircraft engines use magnetos because that is the only ignition system
approved by FAA Regulations. It is true that the Civil Aeronautics Authority, the predecessor to the FAA,
defined the standards for piston-engine aircraft ignition systems nearly 85 years ago. The wording in the
current regulations has remained virtually unchanged since then, and reads as follows:
CFR 14, 33.37, PART 33—AIRWORTHINESS STANDARDS: AIRCRAFT ENGINES
33.37 Ignition System
Each spark-ignition engine must have a dual ignition system with at least two spark plugs for each
cylinder and two separate electric circuits with separate sources of electrical energy, or have an ignition
system of equivalent in-flight reliability.
Interesting….where are the words that say, specifically, magnetos must be used on piston-engine aircraft
engines? The truth is there is no specific guidelines set forth by the FAA that piston engines must use
magnetos as the primary ignition source for piston engines.
So, why are magnetos used as the most prevalent ignition system used on aircraft piston engines when
more modern technology for ignition is available?


BLAME IT ON WRIGHTS- AND CHARLES TAYLOR


The discussion of aircraft magnetos needs to begin with some sort of historical context as to how
magnetos were first designed onto aircraft engines. As with virtually all the basics of flight, magnetos
can be directly traced back to the engine used in the very first Wright Flyer of 1903.
Everyone knows that the Wright Brothers built and flew the first successful powered airplane. But, very
few people know that the Wrights also built the very first piston engine specifically designed for
airplanes. The engine used by the Wrights was one of the most important, but overlooked elements
that made their airplane successful.

The Wrights were not the first to fly or developing sophisticated aircraft designs. George Cayley, Otto
Lilienthal, Octave Chanute had flown manned gliders many years ahead of the Wrights and had proven
the concept of heavier than air flight. Samuel Langley made successful flights with an unmanned
airplane powered by a steam engine. Langley unsuccessfully launched a steam engine-powered, man-carrying airplane in October 1903, 3 months prior to the Wright’s historic flight.
The important point is, numerous inventors had developed flight-capable airframes at the time that the
Wrights were experimenting with flight. However, the airframes lacked a suitable powerplant of the
right power and weight that could propel the airplane in powered flight. The engine used by the
Wrights solved the propulsion problem and directly contributed to their accomplishment to
demonstrate controllable, powered flight of a heavier than air machine.
The Wrights were assisted in their aircraft engine development work by their in-house master bicycle
mechanic, Charlie Taylor. Keep in mind that gasoline-fueled piston engines were an emerging science of
the time, and not common at all. The vast majority of people living at the time had never seen nor
heard a piston engine and very likely had no knowledge of how a piston engine worked. In 1903, when
the Wrights completed their first powered flight, Henry Ford was still 5 years away from producing the
very first Model T car, so gasoline-powered engines used in vehicles were a rarity.
Incredibly, with no formal engineering background, using only the skills he had learned as a toolmaker
and bicycle repair mechanic, Charlie Taylor built the first successful airplane engine in only six weeks!
He did follow established engineering concepts for piston engines of the time and used design elements
from existing, successful engines. For the ignition system, he used what all other engine manufacturers
were using- a magneto!
What inspired Charles Taylor to use a magneto? Was there a better solution to be found in the automotive
world? In a word- No. In 1903, the magneto was state of the art for ignition systems, was the very best
solution for a lightweight, simple, self-contained generator of electrical energy. The magneto did not
require any external sources of power to make it generate spark energy. The engine flywheel turned a
magnetic rotor shaft in the magneto, and an electrical charge was generated. That energy fired the
spark plug to ignite engine combustion which made the engine run to turn the propellers.
The only other option available to Taylor was a battery ignition system that supplied power to an
external coil and contact point mechanism to distribute the spark. The dilemma for Taylor was that
batteries and generators of the time were extremely heavy, with all-up weight in the many hundreds of
pounds. The size of the batteries also would have required considerable physical space, extra structure-
and resulting weight- to support the batteries in the Flyer.
The magneto solution used by Taylor was an engineering marvel. The average magneto weight was 20-
25lbs. and made a spark any time that the engine was running. The empty weight of the Wright Flyer
was just over 600 lbs., meaning the magneto system was just under 5% of the total weight of the
airplane. A battery ignition system probably would have added 30% more weight to the Wright Flyer,
which would have clearly prevented it from flying.
Is it a stretch to suggest that the Wrights were successful as the first to fly a controllable airplane due to
the magneto? While that is an interesting idea, it is safe to say that the magneto certainly contributed
to the overall success of the Wright Flyer and the Taylor engine.

THE GOVERNMENT REQUIRES DUAL IGNITION


The current day Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, can find trace its roots through a number of
government agencies that were focused on defining the regulations for aviation safety. The Civil
Aeronautics Authority of the 1930s put into effect more stringent regulations to improve the safety of
aircraft and engines. The early Civil Aviation Regulations became the later Federal Aviation Regulations
and established the basis for rulemaking and safety standards for aircraft and engine design.
Through the 1920s and early 1930s, the aircraft engine continued to rely upon single magnetos as the
primary ignition system. As the CAR’s developed to improve upon aircraft engine design and safety, the
Regulations for a dual, independent ignition system made the spark generating magnetos a perfect
solution to comply with this government requirement. Dual ignition systems became the standard
design, and for good reason. If one ignition system malfunctioned, then the remaining ignition could
keep the engine running so that the flight could continue and be landed normally, under complete
control.

The magneto also made sense as it was uncommon for aircraft of the time to be fitted with electrical
systems or starters. Aircraft electrical systems did not develop as quickly as they did for cars, primarily
due to weight, complexity, and expense. Batteries, starters, and alternators were still very heavy and
not particularly reliable. The added weight of an aircraft electrical system could easily add 200 lbs. to
the aircraft weight or about the weight of a passenger and personal baggage.
For the most part, pilots of the time did not care that there were no electrical systems on
airplanes. With no electric starters, aircraft engines used the “Armstrong Method” to get engines
started: The propeller was swung by a person using their arms, the mags were switched to on, and the
engine started. No worry about dead batteries, no worry about the cost of maintaining starters and
electrical systems, no worry about getting stranded due to a failed electrical system. If the pilot could
swing the propeller, the magneto sparked, and the engine would run. Magnetos provided the perfect
solution to provide simplified system installation, good starting characteristics, and low cost of
operation.

IT IS ALL ABOUT THE TIMING


In the early 30s, aircraft ignitions and automotive ignitions took different paths in terms of
development. Automakers favored battery-driven contact point/coil/distributor systems and aircraft
engines remained steadfast with the magneto. There are numerous technical reasons why each system
worked better in some way for either the automotive or aircraft application.
First, the mission profile of automotive engines and airplane engines became distinctly different. Auto
engines are subject to a frequent change of RPM to speed up and slow down, sometimes driving in stop-and-go traffic, sometimes driving fast for long distances. Because of this, auto engine ignition systems
and timing to the engine were biased to improve starting, idle, and low to mid RPM acceleration.
Magnetos are limited to “fixed” advance ignition timing for all operations other than starting the engine.
The fixed advanced timing works for airplane engines because full power is required at takeoff, and
engine RPM does not vary for all inflight operations after takeoff and landing. The requirement for the
aircraft engine to make full power is critical to flying safety. Airplanes must carry their certified load at
takeoff. Not only that, but they must takeoff within a specific length of the runway and climb at a rate
sufficient to clear obstacles or terrain within the vicinity of the airport.
Auto engines rarely need to run at full power for extended periods, and rarely run at greater than 30%
to 40% power most of the time. Car drivers never worry about having enough power to clear a hill or
the power required to drive with light or heavy loads. Full engine power is rarely if ever, required for a
typical passenger car. Because auto engine RPM varies when driving and the engine accelerates or
decelerates randomly, the fixed timing of the magneto does not provide the best overall performance.
Magnetos were not optimum and automakers devised distributors with “variable advance” mechanisms
that changed timing based on the centrifugal force applied to the advance mechanism as the engine
RPM changed.

The advanced mechanisms had the potential for failure modes which could affect ignition reliability,
though. The advance mechanism itself adds many extra components to the system, all of which are
subject to maintenance, or in the worst case, failure. Auto ignitions were designed to default to an
engine timing point not at full power, but to low power, idle timing position. The automotive failsafe
provided for “limp home” capability, but at the cost of reduced power.
The default timing for the aircraft engine magneto is the maximum power timing point, which provides
for the safest situation should the engine be required to continue running after one of the ignition
systems fails in flight. The lack of the advanced mechanism is a benefit in terms of maintenance and
overall cost due to lower parts count.
The picture comes into focus that aircraft engines and automotive engines have distinctly different
“mission profiles” relative to how the engine develops power relative to ignition timing.
 Automotive engines timing is designed to provide the best starting spark and optimize spark at
less than full power engine loads by varying engine timing
o The limp home default in the event of a component malfunction is for reduced engine
power

 Aircraft engines timing is optimized to perform best at full power engine loads by keeping
ignition system timing at a fixed point with no variability
o The limp home default is normal operation provided by the remaining ignition system
should one system fail


MAGNETOS ARE THE CHOICE


The FAA’s single-minded goal for safety does not necessarily inhibit innovation, but it can encourage
aircraft engine manufacturers to follow conservative, simple design paths of engineering. However, is a
conservative path, wrong, or just as pragmatic as a mindset of “not re-inventing the wheel?”
There have been at least a half dozen electronic ignitions specifically designed to replace magnetos
introduced into the aviation market since 1986. But, none of these ignitions have shown the potential to
be the “perfect” replacement for magnetos. Incredibly, many of the electronic ignitions sold today
require that a magneto be retained as part of the system for failsafe backup. When the electronic
ignition fails, the old technology, tried and true magneto will save the day so that the aircraft engine
continues to run safely

In the final analysis, electronic ignitions are challenged to match the simplicity of installation and repair
support that exists for magnetos. By design, electronic ignitions are more complicated installations with
numerous components and wiring connections that all have to be not only installed correctly but
maintained correctly. Troubleshooting of electronic ignitions requires the ability to think in more
abstract terms of electronics and component interactions. Magnetos are mechanical, maintenance and
troubleshooting do not require any extraordinary troubleshooting skills. The vast majority of aircraft
mechanics in the world know how to install, maintain and repair magnetos. Out of the hundreds of
thousands of aircraft mechanics in the world, only a few hundred may have experience with installing
maintaining, and servicing aircraft electronic ignitions.
Parts and service support for magnetos are unparalleled. Magnetos, parts, and companies that can
service magnetos can be found worldwide. Anywhere in the world where a piston engine airplane can
take off or land, there are magnetos parts or support available within a one-day shipping time. In most
cases, maintenance shops based at airports with higher levels of airplane activity will have parts in stock
and mechanics available immediately to provide service for the magneto. Due to the very low
population of electronic ignitions, virtually no repair parts are easily found in the worldwide market.
Parts are stocked at a handful of locations, or available as a special order from the manufacturer. In some
cases, electronic ignitions sold and installed at some point in the past are simply no longer supported by
the manufacturer. The recommendation from the manufacturer is to replace that electronic ignition
with magnetos should it need service!
So why is it that mechanical magnetos- which have been in use on reciprocating engines for over 125
years- are still being used as the primary ignition systems for piston-engine aircraft? When all of the
advantages and disadvantages are summed up, the very reason that Charlie Taylor selected the
magneto for the first piston aircraft engine remains as true today as it was 125 years ago: The magneto is
a self-contained generator of electricity and ultimately the least complicated, most common sense
the choice for reliability and performance for aircraft engines.

OEM Maintenance Compliance & Kelly Aero Magneto Data Plate

OEM Maintenance Compliance & Kelly Aero Magneto Data Plate


By Harry Fenton, Director of Business Development and Product Support, Kelly Aero
Routine maintenance requirements and all special service actions required by Service Bulletins and
Airworthiness Directives typically require that the magneto serial number or part number be referenced
to verify compliance. The OEM data found on the magneto data plates is always the baseline to establish
the applicability of the compliance of a required maintenance or safety action.
However, what is required when an OEM data plate has been replaced by a company that is not the OEM
for the magneto? What if a serial number is added to the data plate that is different than the OEM serial
number? Do OEM requirements still apply? The bigger question: Is the magneto considered an FAA
legal part if the OEM data plate has been removed and replaced by a non-OEM data plate?
Replacement Data Plates- Is This Legal?
The simple answer is “yes”, Kelly Aero replaces worn and damaged OEM magneto data plates with new
Kelly Aero data plates. But, the “yes” answer is not as simple as it sounds. The FAA considers the
management and disposition of OEM data plates attached to FAA-PMA articles as serious business. The
real world for Kelly Aero is that there is no option: worn data plates must be replaced when magnetos
are inspected or overhauled. In most cases, magnetos returned to Kelly as cores for overhaul, or for the
500-hour inspection, may be legible, but not in a useable condition to continue on in service.

The continued use of the OEM data plate for ongoing service and compliance becomes a safety issue if
the information on the data plate becomes illegible. The only practical and safe solution is to make a
new data plate stamped with the information from the old, worn data plate.
The FAA has strict regulations against the removal and replacement of airframe, engine, propeller, and
life-limited parts, though. They spell out what can, and cannot be done in the Federal Code of
Regulations, Part 45. The FAA states, specifically, that data plates of Type Certificated or Life Limited
items may be removed in the course of maintenance and must be reattached to the item from which
they were removed. Replacement data plates for these items can only be provided by the OEM, but the
FAA must approve and accept that process. This concept has been drilled into mechanics thinking by
the FAA and industry guidance. The general understanding is that all data plates are forbidden to be
replaced.


The data plates of component articles that are FAA-PMA approved, such as magnetos, are not as strictly
controlled and the FAA can approve a repair process that does not require OEM approval for data plate
replacement. Kelly Aero’s process to replace the worn OEM data plate with a new Kelly Aero data plate

is part of our FAA-approved Repair Station Quality Manual. This manual details the process to replace
data plates, but also documents the strict record-keeping and traceability procedure required to
preserve the OEM data plate and magneto model information.
Bendix and Slick magnetos worked on by Kelly Aero for overhaul or 500-hour inspection are completely
disassembled and all parts are cleaned and inspected to make the magneto look and work like new.
During the teardown and inspection process, the OEM data plate is removed from the magneto frame in
order to strip the paint from the magneto and repaint it to a new condition. The OEM serial number and
magneto part number are permanently coded onto the magneto frame to preserve the record of that
part. All of the information on the data plate becomes part of the extensive overhaul record of the
magneto as it progresses through the Kelly Quality system.
When the inspection and re-work steps are completed, a list of parts to overhaul or to complete the 500
hour inspection of the magneto is generated and added to the magneto record. At every step in the
process, from disassembly to completion of the overhaul, the OEM data is part of the documentation
record.


After the magneto assembly is completed, a new Kelly Aero data plate is made for the magneto. The
data plate will show the OEM serial number, the Kelly Aero Overhaul serial number, and the part
number of the magneto. The new Kelly Aero data plate is attached and the inspected magneto looks as good
as new. An FAA Form 8130-3 Authorized Release Certificate is generated to document and release the
500-hour inspection magneto to service.
If the magneto is overhauled, the data plate marking will be slightly different as compared to the 500
hour inspection. Kelly Aero Overhauled magnetos are treated more like new production magnetos and
a unique Kelly Aero serial number is assigned to the magneto. The OEM serial number is also retained
and both the Kelly Aero and OEM serial numbers are engraved on the new magneto data plate.

The Dual Identity of a magneto overhauled by Kelly Aero
After overhaul, an FAA Form 8130-3 Authorized Release Certificate is generated to document
completion of the overhaul process and to authorize the release to service of this part by Kelly Aero. It is
at this point that the magneto develops a dual identity based on the specific requirements that apply to
the OEM serial number or the Kelly assigned a serial number. Both serial numbers become equally
important in terms of ongoing maintenance compliance.
The most common misconception is that the Kelly Aero data plate changes the requirements to comply
with OEM maintenance guidance. This perception is 100% wrong. All OEM Service Bulletins and
Airworthiness Directives continue to apply to the magneto based on the underlying OEM magneto data,
regardless if it was overhauled by Kelly Aero or by any other company.
However, the Kelly Aero overhaul uses Kelly manufactured FAA-PMA parts and additional processes of
inspection and workmanship which are not part of the basic OEM minimum requirements. These
additional features make the Kelly Aero overhaul unique. These unique features may be affected by
inspections or service needs different than, or in addition to, than OEM requirements. To track service
requirements of the content added by Kelly to an overhauled magneto, a unique Kelly Aero assigned
serial number is added to the data plate and is listed on the FAA Form 8130-3 Authorized Release
Certificate supplied with the magneto.

Given the “dual Identity” of the magnetos serviced by Kelly Aero, the replacement Kelly Aero data plate
is clearly more than just a simple cosmetic replacement. The Kelly Aero data plate ensures legibility for
the service cycle of the magneto, which is required for ongoing compliance and safety requirements.
The Kelly Aero data plate also adds the extra layer of traceability of the Kelly added components and
workmanship. Ultimately, ALL applicable OEM and Kelly Aero service requirements must be complied
with after the magneto is released to service, and the new Kelly Aero data plate assures that action can
be accomplished.
Do you have a question about Kelly Aero products or piston engine ignition systems? Contact us at
https://kellyaero.com/about/contact-us/

500hr Inspection & Certification

500hr Inspection & Certification

Utilizing over 25 years of Bendix/CMI magneto overhaul experience, Kelly Aerospace Energy Systems has developed a detailed 35 point checklist that complies with all applicable AD’s, service bulletins, and Continental Motors Master Service Manual to ensure a complete inspection of your aircraft magneto. Ask about our 500 hour inspection certification today!

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