Aviation fuel is a specialized type of petroleum-based fuel used to power aircraft. It is generally of a higher quality than fuels used in less critical applications, such as heating or road transport, and often contains additives to reduce the risk of icing or explosion due to high temperature, among other properties.
Most aviation fuels available for aircraft are kinds of petroleum spirit used in engines with spark plugs (i.e. piston and Wankel rotary engines), or fuel for jet turbine engines, which is also used in diesel aircraft engines.
Types of aviation fuel
Conventional aviation fuels
Avgas (aviation gasoline) is used in spark-ignited internal-combustion engines in aircraft. Its formulation is distinct from mogas (motor gasoline) used in cars and many military vehicles such Deuce and 1/2s . Avgas is formulated for stability, safety, and predictable performance under a wide range of environments, and is typically used in aircraft that use reciprocating or Wankel engines.
Jet fuel is a clear to straw-colored fuel, based on either an unleaded kerosene (Jet A-1), or a naphtha-kerosene blend (Jet B). It is similar to diesel fuel, and can be used in either compression ignition engines or turbine engines.
Jet-A powers modern commercial airliners is a mix of pure kerosene and burns at temperatures at or above 49 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit). Kerosene-based fuel has a much higher flash point than gasoline-based fuel, meaning that it requires significantly higher temperature to ignite. It is a high-quality fuel; if it fails the purity and other quality tests for use on jet aircraft, it is sold to other ground-based users with less demanding requirements, like railroad engines.
Production of aviation fuel
The production of aviation fuel falls into two categories: fuel suitable for turbine engines and fuel suitable for internal combustion engines. There are international specifications for each.
Jet fuel is used in both turboprop and jet aircraft, and must maintain a low viscosity at low temperature, meet definite limits in terms of density and calorific value, burn cleanly, and remain chemically stable when heated to high temperature.
Aviation gasoline, often referred to as “avgas” or 100-LL (low-lead), is a highly refined form of gasoline for aircraft, with an emphasis on purity, anti-knock characteristics and minimization of spark plug fouling. Avgas must meet performance guidelines for both the rich mixture condition required for take-off power settings and the leaner mixtures used during cruise to reduce fuel consumption.
Avgas is sold in much lower volume than jet fuel, but to many more individual aircraft operators; whereas jet fuel is sold in high volume to large aircraft operators, such as airlines and military.
Aviation fuels consist of blends of over two thousand chemicals, primarily hydrocarbons (paraffins, olefins, naphthenes, and aromatics), additives such as antioxidants and metal deactivators, biocides, static reducers, icing inhibitors, corrosion inhibitors, and impurities. Principal components include n-heptane and isooctane. Like other fuels, aviation fuel for spark-ignited piston engines are described by their octane rating.
Alcohol, alcohol mixtures, and other alternative fuels may be used experimentally, but alcohol is not permitted in any certified aviation fuel specification
Aviation fuel generally arrives at the airport via pipeline systems, such as the CEPS, … It is then pumped over and dispensed from a tanker or bowser. The fuel is then driven up to parked aircraft and helicopters. Some airports have pumps similar to filling stations to which aircraft must taxi. Some airports have permanent piping to parking areas for large aircraft.
Aviation fuel is transferred to an aircraft via one of two methods: overwing or underwing.
Overwing fueling is used on smaller planes, helicopters, and all piston-engine aircraft. Overwing fueling is similar to car fueling one or more fuel ports are opened and fuel is pumped in with a conventional pump.
Underwing fueling, also called single-point refueling or pressure refueling where not dependent on gravity, is used on larger aircraft and for jet fuel exclusively.
For pressure refueling, a high-pressure hose is attached and fuel is pumped in at 275 kilopascals (40 psi) and a maximum of 310 kilopascals (45 psi) for most commercial aircraft. Pressure for military aircraft, especially fighters, ranges up to 415 kilopascals (60 psi). Air being displaced in the tanks is usually vented overboard through a single vent on the aircraft. Because there is only one attachment point, fuel distribution between tanks is either automated or it is controlled from a control panel at the fueling point or in the cockpit. An early use of pressure refueling was on the de Havilland Comet and Sud Aviation Caravelle. Larger aircraft allow for two or more attachment points, however this is still referred to as single-point refueling, as either attachment point can refuel all of the tanks. Multiple attachments allow for faster fuel flows.
Any fueling operation can be very dangerous, and aviation operations have characteristics which must be accommodated. As an aircraft flies through the air, it can accumulate static electricity. If this is not dissipated before fueling, an electric arc could occur and ignite fuel vapors. To prevent this, aircraft are electrically bonded to the fueling apparatus before fueling begins, and are not disconnected until after fueling is complete. Some regions require the aircraft and/or fuel truck to be grounded too. Pressure fueling systems incorporate a dead man’s switch to preclude unmonitored operation.
Aviation fuel can cause severe environmental damage; all fueling vehicles must carry equipment to control fuel spills. Fire extinguishers must be present at any fueling operation. Airport firefighting forces are specially trained and equipped to handle aviation fuel fires and spills. Aviation fuel must be checked daily and before every flight for contaminants such as water or dirt.
Many airlines now require safety belts be left unfastened should passengers be aboard during refueling.