The magic under the cowling

A look at the Lycoming Thunderbolt

The Lycoming Thunderbolt

When the Red Bull Air Race World Championship returned to our skies in 2014, it brought with it several rule changes – one of which was a standardised engine for all teams in the Master Class. This means the teams are not allowed to tune or modify the engine in any way.

This rule change was chosen to ensure the battle for the Red Bull Air Race World Championship was fair, as well as exciting. It's also a lot safer.

The engine chosen for all raceplanes was the six-cylinder, Lycoming Thunderbolt AEIO-540-EXP. This engine produces 300hp at 2,950rpm. The powerplant for each team has been race-tuned and customised to Red Bull Air Race's exact specifications, and built in Lycoming's Advanced Technology Centre.

The exhaust under testing
The exhaust under high temperature testing ©Balazs Gardi/RBAR

Before the engine can be used in a raceplane it undergoes rigorous testing. The testing and analysis of each engine verifies the performance of air flow, fuel flows, operating temperatures, horsepower and other operating parameters. All testing was performed to factory specifications, which ensures that the engines are operating reliably at peak and consistent performance.

Due to the introduction of the standardised engine and propeller, pilots and their teams now dedicate their efforts on perfecting airframe aerodynamics, as well as enhancing pilot skill and ability. It also put the technicians in the spotlight with a greater emphasis on aerodynamic modifications and new innovations like special synthetic Shark Skin, different winglets and vortex generators.

Jim "Jimbo" Reed explains more