Water Content of the Atmosphere

in Physics

In the troposphere, the air is rarely completely dry. It contains water vapor in one of two forms: (1) fog or (2) water vapor. Fog consists of minute droplets of water held in suspension by the air. Clouds are composed of fog. The height to which some clouds extend is a good indication of the presence of water in the atmosphere almost up to the stratosphere. The presence of water vapor in the air is quite evident in Figure 3‑52, with a military F-18 doing a high-speed fly-by at nearly Mach 1. The temperature and pressure changes that occur as the airplane approaches supersonic flight cause the water vapor in the air to condense and form the vapor cloud that is visible.

Figure 3-52. F-18 high-speed fly-by and a vapor cloud.

Figure 3-52. F-18 high-speed fly-by and a vapor cloud.

As a result of evaporation, the atmosphere always contains some moisture in the form of water vapor. The moisture in the air is called the humidity of the air. Moisture does not consist of tiny particles of liquid held in suspension in the air as in the case of fog, but is an invisible vapor truly as gaseous as the air with which it mixes. Fog and humidity both affect the performance of an aircraft. In flight, at cruising power, the effects are small and receive no consideration. During takeoff, however, humidity has important effects. Two things are done to compensate for the effects of humidity on takeoff performance. Since humid air is less dense than dry air, the allowable takeoff gross weight of an aircraft is generally reduced for operation in areas that are consistently humid. Second, because the power output of reciprocating engines is decreased by humidity, the manifold pressure may need to be increased above that recommended for takeoff in dry air in order to obtain the same power output.

Engine power output is calculated on dry air. Since water vapor is incombustible, its pressure in the atmosphere is a total loss as far as contributing to power output. The mixture of water vapor and air is drawn through the carburetor, and fuel is metered into it as though it were all air. This mixture of water vapor, air, and fuel enters the combustion chamber where it is ignited. Since the water vapor will not burn, the effective fuel/air ratio is enriched and the engine operates as though it were on an excessively rich mixture. The resulting horsepower loss under humid conditions can therefore be attributed to the loss in volumetric efficiency due to displaced air, and the incomplete combustion due to an excessively rich fuel⁄air mixture.

The reduction in power that can be expected from humidity is usually given in charts in the flight manual. There are several types of charts in use. Some merely show the expected reduction in power due to humidity; others show the boost in manifold pressure necessary to restore full takeoff power.

The effect of fog on the performance of an engine is very noticeable, particularly on engines with high compression ratios. Normally, some detonation will occur during acceleration, due to the high BMEP (brake mean effective pressures) developed. However, on a foggy day it is difficult to cause detonation to occur. The explanation of this lies in the fact that fog consists of particles of water that have not vaporized. When these particles enter the cylinders, they absorb a tremendous amount of heat energy in the process of vaporizing. The temperature is thus lowered, and the decrease is sufficient to prevent detonation.

Fog will generally cause a decrease in horsepower output. However, with a supercharged engine, it will be possible to use higher manifold pressures without danger of detonation.