Erosion of the electrodes takes place in all aircraft spark plugs as the spark jumps the air gap between the electrodes. [Figure 4-50]
The spark carries with it a portion of the electrode, part of which is deposited on the other electrode. The remainder is blown off in the combustion chamber. As the airgap is enlarged by erosion, the resistance that the spark must overcome in jumping the air gap also increases. This means that the magneto must produce a higher voltage to overcome the higher resistance. With higher voltages in the ignition system, a greater tendency exists for the spark to discharge at some weak insulation point in the ignition system. Since the resistance of an air gap also increases as the pressure in the engine cylinder increases, a double danger exists at takeoff and during sudden acceleration with enlarged airgaps. Insulation breakdown, premature flashover, and carbon tracking result in misfiring of the spark plug and go hand in hand with excessive spark plug gap. Wide gap settings also raise the coming in speed of a magneto and therefore cause hard starting.
Spark plug manufacturers have partially overcome the problem of gap erosion by using a hermetically sealed resistor in the center electrode of spark plugs. This added resistance in the high-tension circuit reduces the peak current at the instant of firing. This reduced current flow helps prevent metal disintegration in the electrodes. Also, due to the high erosion rate of steel or any of its known alloys, spark plug manufacturers are using tungsten or an alloy of nickel for their massive electrode plugs and iridium/platinum plating for their fine wire electrode plugs.