Aircraft Pneumatic Systems (Part One)

in Hydraulic and Pneumatic Power Systems

Some aircraft manufacturers have equipped their aircraft with a high pressure pneumatic system (3,000 psi) in the past. The last aircraft to utilize this type of system was the Fokker F27. Such systems operate a great deal like hydraulic systems, except they employ air instead of a liquid for transmitting power. Pneumatic systems are sometimes used for:

  • Brakes
  • Opening and closing doors
  • Driving hydraulic pumps, alternators, starters, water injection pumps, etc.
  • Operating emergency devices

Both pneumatic and hydraulic systems are similar units and use confined fluids. The word confined means trapped or completely enclosed. The word fluid implies such liquids as water, oil, or anything that flows. Since both liquids and gases flow, they are considered as fluids; however, there is a great deal of difference in the characteristics of the two. Liquids are practically incompressible; a quart of water still occupies about a quart of space regardless of how hard it is compressed. But gases are highly compressible; a quart of air can be compressed into a thimbleful of space. In spite of this difference, gases and liquids are both fluids and can be confined and made to transmit power. The type of unit used to provide pressurized air for pneumatic systems is determined by the system’s air pressure requirements.

Figure 12-70. High-pressure pneumatic system.

Figure 12-70. High-pressure pneumatic system. [click image to enlarge]

High-Pressure Systems

For high-pressure systems, air is usually stored in metal bottles at pressures ranging from 1,000 to 3,000 psi, depending on the particular system. [Figure 12-70] This type of air bottle has two valves, one of which is a charging valve. A ground-operated compressor can be connected to this valve to add air to the bottle. The other valve is a control valve. It acts as a shutoff valve, keeping air trapped inside the bottle until the system is operated. Although the highpressure storage cylinder is light in weight, it has a definite disadvantage. Since the system cannot be recharged during flight, operation is limited by the small supply of bottled air. Such an arrangement cannot be used for the continuous operation of a system. Instead, the supply of bottled air is reserved for emergency operation of such systems as the landing gear or brakes. The usefulness of this type of system is increased, however, if other air-pressurizing units are added to the aircraft. [Figure 12-71]

Figure 12-71. Pneumatic brake system.

Figure 12-71. Pneumatic brake system.

Pneumatic System Components

Pneumatic systems are often compared to hydraulic systems, but such comparisons can only hold true in general terms. Pneumatic systems do not utilize reservoirs, hand pumps, accumulators, regulators, or engine-driven or electrically driven power pumps for building normal pressure. But similarities do exist in some components.

Air Compressors

On some aircraft, permanently installed air compressors have been added to recharge air bottles whenever pressure is used for operating a unit. Several types of compressors are used for this purpose. Some have two stages of compression, while others have three, depending on the maximum desired operating pressure.

Relief Valves

Relief valves are used in pneumatic systems to prevent damage. They act as pressure limiting units and prevent excessive pressures from bursting lines and blowing out seals.

Control Valves

Control valves are also a necessary part of a typical pneumatic system. Figure 12-72 illustrates how a valve is used to control emergency air brakes. The control valve consists of a three-port housing, two poppet valves, and a control lever with two lobes.

Figure 12-72. Pneumatic control valve.

Figure 12-72. Pneumatic control valve.

In Figure 12-72A, the control valve is shown in the off position. A spring holds the left poppet closed so that compressed air entering the pressure port cannot flow to the brakes. In Figure 12-72B, the control valve has been placed in the on position. One lobe of the lever holds the left poppet open, and a spring closes the right poppet. Compressed air now flows around the opened left poppet, through a drilled passage, and into a chamber below the right poppet. Since the right poppet is closed, the high-pressure air flows out of the brake port and into the brake line to apply the brakes.

To release the brakes, the control valve is returned to the off position. [Figure 12-72A] The left poppet now closes, stopping the flow of high-pressure air to the brakes. At the same time, the right poppet is opened, allowing compressed air in the brake line to exhaust through the vent port and into the atmosphere.

Check Valves

Check valves are used in both hydraulic and pneumatic systems. Figure 12-73 illustrates a flap-type pneumatic check valve. Air enters the left port of the check valve, compresses a light spring, forcing the check valve open and allowing air to flow out the right port. But if air enters from the right, air pressure closes the valve, preventing a flow of air out the left port. Thus, a pneumatic check valve is a one-direction flow control valve.

Figure 12-73. Flap-type pneumatic check valve.

Figure 12-73. Flap-type pneumatic check valve.


Restrictors are a type of control valve used in pneumatic systems. Figure 12-74 illustrates an orifice-type restrictor with a large inlet port and a small outlet port. The small outlet port reduces the rate of airflow and the speed of operation of an actuating unit.

Figure 12-74. Pneumatic orifice valve.

Figure 12-74. Pneumatic orifice valve.

Variable Restrictor

Another type of speed-regulating unit is the variable restrictor. [Figure 12-75] It contains an adjustable needle valve, which has threads around the top and a point on the lower end. Depending on the direction turned, the needle valve moves the sharp point either into or out of a small opening to decrease or increase the size of the opening. Since air entering the inlet port must pass through this opening before reaching the outlet port, this adjustment also determines the rate of airflow through the restrictor.

Figure 12-75. Variable pneumatic restrictor.

Figure 12-75. Variable pneumatic restrictor.


Pneumatic systems are protected against dirt by means of various types of filters. A micronic filter consists of a housing with two ports, a replaceable cartridge, and a relief valve. Normally, air enters the inlet, circulates around the cellulose cartridge, and flows to the center of the cartridge and out the outlet port. If the cartridge becomes clogged with dirt, pressure forces the relief valve open and allows unfiltered air to flow out the outlet port.

A screen-type filter is similar to the micron filter but contains a permanent wire screen instead of a replaceable cartridge. In the screen filter, a handle extends through the top of the housing and can be used to clean the screen by rotating it against metal scrapers.

Desiccant/Moisture Separator

The moisture separator in a pneumatic system is always located downstream of the compressor. Its purpose is to remove any moisture caused by the compressor. A complete moisture separator consists of a reservoir, a pressure switch, a dump valve, and a check valve. It may also include a regulator and a relief valve. The dump valve is energized and deenergized by the pressure switch. When deenergized, it completely purges the separator reservoir and lines up to the compressor. The check valve protects the system against pressure loss during the dumping cycle and prevents reverse flow through the separator.

Chemical Drier

Chemical driers are incorporated at various locations in a pneumatic system. Their purpose is to absorb any moisture that may collect in the lines and other parts of the system. Each drier contains a cartridge that should be blue in color. If otherwise noted, the cartridge is to be considered contaminated with moisture and should be replaced.