The complexity of aircraft hydraulic systems depends heavily on the functions it needs to perform. In smaller planes, hydraulics are used to operate constant-speed propellers, landing gear, and wheel brakes. On larger planes, the systems tend to be more complex as they are used to operate flight control surfaces, spoilers, wing flaps, brakes, and other flight critical functionality. The principles of hydraulics are based on Pascal’s law—pressure exerted anywhere in a confined incompressible fluid is transmitted equally, in all directions throughout the fluid, such that the pressure ratio remains constant.
Let’s explore how hydraulic systems work. Hydraulic fluid is first pumped from a reservoir by an electric, or engine operated pump. It runs through a filter to keep the fluid clean, and then passes through a selector valve to relieve pressure. Once it reaches the actuator, the pressurized fluid power is converted into work by the actuators’ piston. The actuator can be single or double acting depending on the requirements of the system. The piston reacts and is able to control aircraft systems, brakes, flight controls, and many other operations. Actuators are the main moving parts in hydraulics; a vital component contributing to overall functioning capabilities.
A hydraulic actuator consists of a cylinder, or fluid motor, that utilizes hydraulic power to facilitate mechanical operation. It gives an output in terms of linear, oscillatory, or rotary motion. An actuator can exert a considerable amount of force since liquids are nearly impossible compress entirely. It consists of a hollow cylindrical tube on which a piston can slide. Some actuators are single acting, meaning fluid pressure is applied to just one side of the piston, causing it to move in one direction. There are also double acting actuators. This term is used when pressure is applied to both sides of the piston; a difference in pressure between the two sides causes the piston to move in the more pressurized direction. Actuators can come in different sizes and shapes depending on the size/weight of the object it needs to move.
Hydraulics have the ability to deliver a great deal of power without occupying too much space or weight. They can be operated quickly, relied on, and are easy to maintain. They do not need electricity to function, which means the chance of a fire hazard are very low, making them a safer option than other systems. Yet, perhaps the main advantage they offer is that they can handle an immense workload, which is invaluable in today’s aerospace engineering.
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