Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Radial engine

The radial engine is a particular engine configuration, in which the cylinders are arranged pointing out from a central crankshaft like the spokes on a wheel.

The cylinders are connected to the crankshaft with a master-and-articulating-rod assembly. One cylinder has a master rod with a direct connection to the crankshaft. The remaining cylinders are connected by an articulating rod to rings around the edge of the master rod.

For aircraft use the radial has several advantages over the inline design. With all of the cylinders at the front of the engine (in effect), it is easy to cool them with airflow. Most inlines require a cooling fluid to remove heat, as the rear-most cylinders receive little airflow. Air cooling saves a considerable amount of complexity, and also reduces weight to some degree.

In addition the radial is far more resistant to damage; if the block cracks on an inline that entire cylinder bank will lose power, but the same situation on a radial will often only make that individual cylinder stop working.

These sorts of advantages – light weight and reliability – suggest that the radial layout is a natural fit for aircraft uses. However the radial design also has two important disadvantages. One is that any supply of compressed air (from a turbocharger or supercharger) has to be piped around the entire engine, whereas in the inline only one or two pipes are needed, each feeding an entire cylinder bank. The other disadvantage is that the frontal area of the radial is always much larger than the same displacement inline, meaning that the radial will always have greater drag. For a low-speed plane this is not very important, but for fighter aircraft and other high-speed needs, this is often a "killer problem".

The debate about the merits of the radial vs. the inline continued throughout the 1930's, with both types seeing at least some use. The radial tended to be more popular largely due to its simplicity, and most navy air arms had dedicated themselves to the radial because of its improved reliability (very important when flying over water) and lighter weight (for carrier takeoffs).

In the mid-1930s a new generation of highly streamlined high-speed aircraft appeared, along with more powerful inline engines like the Rolls Royce Merlin and Dailmer-Benz DB 601. This re-opened the debate anew, with the needs of streamlining often winning out. However the Focke-Wulf FW 190 showed that a radial engine fighter could compete with the best of the inlines, given a proper installation. From that point on many new designs used radials, and after the war the inlines quickly disappeared from the now-smaller aircraft market.