Reciprocating Engine Overhaul

in Engine Maintenance and Operation

Both maintenance and complete engine overhauls are performed normally at specified intervals. This interval is usually governed by the number of hours the powerplant has been in operation. The actual overhaul period for a specific engine is generally determined by the manufacturer’s recommendations. Each engine manufacturer sets a total time in service when the engine should be removed from service and overhauled. Depending upon how the engine is used in service, the overhaul time can be mandatory. The overhaul time is listed in hours and is referred to as time before overhaul (TBO). For example, if an engine had a life of 2,000 hours and had operated 500 hours, it would have a TBO of 1,500 hours. Tests and experience have shown that operation beyond this period of time could result in certain parts being worn beyond their safe limits. For an overhauled engine to be as airworthy as a new one, worn parts, as well as damaged parts, must be detected and replaced during overhaul. The only way to detect all unairworthy parts is to perform a thorough and complete overhaul process while the engine is disassembled. The major purpose of overhaul is to inspect, repair, and replace worn engine parts.

A complete overhaul process includes the following ten steps: receiving inspection; disassembly; visual inspection; cleaning; structural inspection; non-destructive testing (NDT) inspection; dimensional inspection; repair and replacement; reassembly; and testing and break in. The inspection phases are the most precise and the most important phases of the overhaul. Inspection cannot be slighted or performed in a careless or incomplete manner. It is always recommended that complete records be made of the inspection process and kept with the engine records.


Each engine manufacturer provides very specific tolerances to which the engine parts must conform, and provides general instructions to aid in determining the airworthiness of the part. However, in many cases, the final determination must be made by the technician. Although the determination must be made if the part is serviceable, repairable, or should be rejected, the technician should follow the manufacturer’s manuals and information. When dimensional tolerances are concerned, the manufacturer publishes a new minimum and serviceable dimension for all critical component parts. Knowledge of the operating principles, strength, and stresses applied to a part is essential in making decisions regarding visible wear. When the powerplant technician signs the release for the return to service for an overhauled engine, this certifies that the complete overhaul process has been performed using methods, techniques, and practices acceptable to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator.

Top Overhaul

Reciprocating piston aircraft engines can be repaired by a top overhaul. This means an overhaul of those parts on top of the crankcase, without completely dismantling the engine. It includes removal of the units (i.e., exhaust collectors, ignition harness, intake pipes) necessary to remove the cylinders. The actual top overhaul consists of reconditioning the engine’s cylinders by replacing or reconditioning the piston and piston rings, and reconditioning or plating the cylinder wall and valve-operating mechanism, including valve guides if needed. A top overhaul is a little misleading, because it is really an engine repair procedure and not a real overhaul as described earlier. Usually at this time, the accessories require no attention other than that normally required during ordinary maintenance functions. This repair is generally due to valves or piston rings wearing prematurely. Many stress that if an engine requires this much dismantling, it should be completely disassembled and receive a major overhaul.

Major Overhaul and Major Repairs

Major overhaul consists of the complete reconditioning of the powerplant. A reciprocating engine would require that the crankcase be disassembled per the FAA; a major overhaul is not generally a major repair. A certified powerplant-rated technician can perform or supervise a major overhaul of an engine if it is not equipped with an internal supercharger, or has a propeller reduction system other than spur-type gears. At regular intervals, an engine should be completely dismantled, thoroughly cleaned, and inspected. Each part should be overhauled in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions and tolerances for the engine involved. At this time all accessories are removed, overhauled, and tested. Again, instructions from the manufacturer of the accessory concerned should be followed.

General Overhaul Procedures

Because of the continued changes and the many different types of engines in use, it is not possible to treat the specific overhaul of each engine in this text. However, there are various overhaul practices and instructions of a nonspecific nature that apply to all makes and models of engines.

Any engine to be overhauled completely should receive a runout check of its crankshaft or propeller shaft as a first step. Any question concerning crankshaft or propeller shaft replacement is resolved at this time, since a shaft whose runout is beyond limits must be replaced.