Reciprocating Engine Power and Efficiencies (Part One)

in Aircraft Engines

All aircraft engines are rated according to their ability to do work and produce power. This section presents an explanation of work and power and how they are calculated. Also discussed are the various efficiencies that govern the power output of a reciprocating engine.


A physicist defines work as force times distance. Work done by a force acting on a body is equal to the magnitude of the force multiplied by the distance through which the force acts.


Work is measured by several standards. The most common unit is called foot-pound (ft-lb). If a one-pound mass is raised one foot, one ft-lb of work has been performed. The greater the mass is and/or the greater the distance is, the greater the work performed.


The common unit of mechanical power is the horsepower (hp). Late in the 18th century, James Watt, the inventor of the steam engine, found that an English workhorse could work at the rate of 550 ft-lb per second, or 33,000 ft-lb per minute, for a reasonable length of time. From his observations came the unit of horsepower, which is the standard unit of mechanical power in the English system of measurement. To calculate the hp rating of an engine, divide the power developed in ft-lb per minute by 33,000, or the power in ft-lb per second by 550.


As stated above, work is the product of force and distance, and power is work per unit of time. Consequently, if a 33,000‑lb weight is lifted through a vertical distance of 1 foot in 1 minute, the power expended is 33,000 ft-lb per minute, or exactly 1 hp.

Work is performed not only when a force is applied for lifting; force may be applied in any direction. If a 100-lb weight is dragged along the ground, a force is still being applied to perform work, although the direction of the resulting motion is approximately horizontal. The amount of this force would depend upon the roughness of the ground.

If the weight were attached to a spring scale graduated in pounds, then dragged by pulling on the scale handle, the amount of force required could be measured. Assume that the force required is 90 lb, and the 100-lb weight is dragged 660 feet in 2 minutes. The amount of work performed in the 2 minutes is 59,400 ft-lb or 29,700 ft-lb per minute. Since 1 hp is 33,000 ft-lb per minute, the hp expended in this case is 29,700 divided by 33,000, or 0.9 hp.

Piston Displacement

When other factors remain equal, the greater the piston displacement, the greater the maximum horsepower an engine is capable of developing. When a piston moves from BDC to TDC, it displaces a specific volume. The volume displaced by the piston is known as piston displacement and is expressed in cubic inches for most American-made engines and cubic centimeters for others.

The piston displacement of one cylinder may be obtained by multiplying the area of the cross-section of the cylinder by the total distance the piston moves in the cylinder in one stroke. For multicylinder engines, this product is multiplied by the number of cylinders to get the total piston displacement of the engine.

Since the volume (V) of a geometric cylinder equals the area (A) of the base multiplied by the height (h), it is expressed mathematically as:

V = A × h

The area of the base is the area of the cross-section of the cylinder.

Area of a Circle To find the area of a circle, it is necessary to use a number called pi (π). This number represents the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of any circle. Pi cannot be stated exactly because it is a never-ending decimal. It is 3.1416 expressed to four decimal places, which is accurate enough for most computations.

The area of a circle, as in a rectangle or triangle, must be expressed in square units. The distance that is one-half the diameter of a circle is known as the radius. The area of any circle is found by squaring the radius (r) and multiplying by π. The formula is:


The radius of a circle is equal to ½ the diameter:



Compute the piston displacement of the PWA 14 cylinder engine having a cylinder with a 5.5 inch diameter and a 5.5 inch stroke. Formulas required are:


Substitute values into these formulas and complete the calculation.


Rounded off to the next whole number, total piston displacement equals 1,829 cubic inches.

Another method of calculating the piston displacement uses the diameter of the piston instead of the radius in the formula for the area of the base.


From this point on, the calculations are identical to the preceding example.