Requirements and Characteristics of Reciprocating Engine Lubricants (Part One)

in Lubrication and Cooling Systems

While there are several important properties that satisfactory reciprocating engine oil must possess, its viscosity is most important in engine operation. The resistance of an oil to flow is known as its viscosity. Oil that flows slowly is viscous or has a high viscosity; if it flows freely, it has a low viscosity. Unfortunately, the viscosity of oil is affected by temperature. It was not uncommon for earlier grades of oil to become practically solid in cold weather, increasing drag and making circulation almost impossible. Other oils may become so thin at high temperatures that the oil film is broken, causing a low load carrying ability, resulting in rapid wear of the moving parts.

The oil selected for aircraft engine lubrication must be light enough to circulate freely at cold temperatures, yet heavy enough to provide the proper oil film at engine operating temperatures. Since lubricants vary in properties and since no one oil is satisfactory for all engines and all operating conditions, it is extremely important that only the approved grade or Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) rating be used.

Several factors must be considered in determining the proper grade of oil to use in a particular engine, the most important of which are the operating load, rotational speeds, and operating temperatures. The grade of the lubricating oil to be used is determined by the operating conditions to be met in the various types of engines. The oil used in aircraft reciprocating engines has a relatively high viscosity required by:

  1. Large engine operating clearances due to the relatively large size of the moving parts, the different materials used, and the different rates of expansion of the various materials;
  2. High operating temperatures; and
  3. High bearing pressures.


Generally, commercial aviation oils are classified by a number, (such as 80, 100, 140, etc.) that is an approximation of the viscosity as measured by a testing instrument called the Saybolt Universal Viscosimeter. In this instrument, a tube holds a specific quantity of the oil to be tested. The oil is brought to an exact temperature by a liquid bath surrounding the tube. The time in seconds required for exactly 60 cubic centimeters of oil to flow through an accurately calibrated orifice is recorded as a measure of the oil’s viscosity. If actual Saybolt values were used to designate the viscosity of oil, there would probably be several hundred grades of oil.

To simplify the selection of oils, they are often classified under an SAE system that divides all oils into seven groups (SAE 10 to 70) according to viscosity at either 130 °F or 210 °F. SAE ratings are purely arbitrary and bear no direct relationship to the Saybolt or other ratings.

The letter W occasionally is included in the SAE number giving a designation, such as SAE 20W. This W indicates that the oil, in addition to meeting the viscosity requirements at the testing temperature specifications, is satisfactory oil for winter use in cold climates. This should not be confused with the W used in front of the grade or weight number that indicates the oil is of the ashless dispersant type.

Although the SAE scale has eliminated some confusion in the designation of lubricating oils, it must not be assumed that this specification covers all the important viscosity requirements. An SAE number indicates only the viscosity grade or relative viscosity; it does not indicate quality or other essential characteristics. It is well known that there are good oils and inferior oils that have the same viscosities at a given temperature and, therefore, are subject to classification in the same grade.

The SAE letters on an oil container are not an endorsement or recommendation of the oil by the SAE. Although each grade of oil is rated by an SAE number, depending on its specific use, it may be rated with a commercial aviation grade number or an Army and Navy specification number. The correlation between these grade numbering systems is shown in Figure 6-3.

Figure 6-3. Grade designations for aviation oils.

Figure 6-3. Grade designations for aviation oils.

Viscosity Index

The viscosity index is a number that indicates the effect of temperature changes on the viscosity of the oil. When oil has a low viscosity index, it signifies a relatively large change of viscosity of increased temperature. The oil becomes thin at high temperatures and thick at low temperatures. Oils with a high viscosity index have small changes in viscosity over a wide temperature range.

The best oil for most purposes is one that maintains a constant viscosity throughout temperature changes. Oil having a high viscosity index resists excessive thickening when the engine is subjected to cold temperatures. This allows for rapid cranking speeds during starting and prompt oil circulation during initial start up. This oil resists excessive thinning when the engine is at operating temperature and provides full lubrication and bearing load protection.

Flash Point and Fire Point

Flash point and fire point are determined by laboratory tests that show the temperature at which a liquid begins to give off ignitable vapors, flash, and the temperature at which there are sufficient vapors to support a flame, fire. These points are established for engine oils to determine that they can withstand the high temperatures encountered in an engine.

Cloud Point and Pour Point

Cloud point and pour point also help to indicate suitability. The cloud point of oil is the temperature at which its wax content, normally held in solution, begins to solidify and separate into tiny crystals, causing the oil to appear cloudy or hazy. The pour point of oil is the lowest temperature at which it flows or can be poured.