Given a standard 6 cylinder horizontally opposed engine like the Continental IO-550 or Lycoming IO-540, the maximum RPM for those engines is 2700 RPM. That's due to keeping the propeller tip speed under the supersonic range.

But what is preventing these engines from turning at a higher RPM for another, non-aircraft use?

I'm thinking if they would work up to around 5000 RPM or so. Maybe the fuel mapping must be modified? Will the valvetrain start to float at that RPM? The application would be automotive, so the load would be far, far less from a duty cycle standpoint then an aircraft application: basically, 5000 RPM would only be seen for a second or two at a time under full (or nearly full) load.

Is there anything else I'm missing? I realize this is a weird question, just doing some thought experimenting.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Engines are typically geared to max the prop at 2700 RPM for the reason you describe - and instruments typically show prop RPM, not engine RPM. It doesn't mean the engine is running at that speed at all. $\endgroup$ – falstro May 26 '17 at 16:25
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @falstro: Typically? In my experience, most aircraft engines are direct drive. Gearing is the exception. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf May 28 '17 at 4:41
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf I typically fly exceptional aircraft. ;) Jokes aside, I'm sure you're correct. I did my training in the DA20 with Rotax, which does have a gearbox. My flight school was also primarily focused on Rotax powered LSAs like the Ikarus C42, my guess is that most of them have gearboxes which would explain why it was mentioned during ground school. The instruments still show prop RPM though, not engine RPM. $\endgroup$ – falstro May 28 '17 at 9:12
  • $\begingroup$ Size related issues. A Cox 0.049 cubic inch aircraft engine will spin 20,000+ RPM, smaller engines potentially even faster. $\endgroup$ – Chris Stratton May 28 '17 at 19:47
  • $\begingroup$ GTSIO-520s, if I recall correctly, turn at 3,300rpm. The reduction drive takes the prop to 2700ish. So...at least 3300rpm. $\endgroup$ – acpilot Jun 25 '17 at 23:07

There are two factors which limit the possible speed of piston engines:

  1. Flame speed in the fuel-air mixture, and
  2. relative speed of moving parts, here the pistons in their cylinder barrels.

If the engine runs too fast, the flame front originating from the spark plug will not have traveled far enough to have burnt most of the fuel by the time the piston moves down again. This puts a fundamental limit to the growth in power output over speed in piston engines.

Also, if the relative speed between moving parts is too high, the lubrication will fail and the parts will overheat quickly. In order to run at the highest possible speed, rotary engines used castor oil, which in turn motivated early aviators to wear long scarves over their mouth so their digestive system would not be compromised by sitting right in the exhaust stream of their engine. Today, lubricants have improved but still set a clear limit to the maximum speed at which a piston engine can be run. Cooling can be managed by pressurizing the cooling system and improving radiator and pump performance while inertial loads on the engine components can be dealt with by lightweight, high-strength materials.

Reducing the bore will allow a higher speed before the ignition limit bites while reducing the stroke will reduce piston speeds, again allowing a higher engine speed before lubrication fails. An optimimized engine will balance both so that the possible speed can be fully exploited. For the IO-360 and IO-540, those dimensions are 5⅛" and 4⅜", respectively. This places them below the last generation of big aviation pistons and closer to the typical interwar engines.

I could not find reliable data on the engine speed of Reno Air Race winners, which should come close to the maximum sensible engine speed at that size class. The best I could find was the 3,700 RPM of the Jumo 213 E, an engine with 5.9" bore and 6.5" stroke, so I would guess by using good fuel and lubrication, the Lycoming might end up somewhere between 4000 and 4500 RPM. I'm sceptical that much useful power can be extracted at 5000 RPM and am sure that the lifetime at this speed will be measured in minutes, not hours.

  • $\begingroup$ I'm rather skeptical about the lubrication part. After all, smaller piston engines like motorcycle engines can redline at well over 10K RPM. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf May 28 '17 at 4:47
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf aviation oil is pretty different, and these engines may not be able to effectively use automotive lubricants. Stroke length affects piston velocity at rpm. Shorter stroke means lower piston velocity at 10k rpm. $\endgroup$ – user9394 May 28 '17 at 9:03
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @BaileyS I'd assume that aero engines use different oil because they're lower-revving, rather than because there's something about aviation that means you couldn't use an oil that would work at 10k rpm. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby May 28 '17 at 11:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Bailey S: I think you have cause and effect reversed here. Aviation oils have the characteristics they do because that's what conventional aviation engines need. If you built an experimental using a high-revving motorcycle engine, you'd use the kind of oil the manufacturer specifies, not aviation oil. IOW, it's not anything fundamental to the oil that limits IC engine RPMs to 2700 or so. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf May 28 '17 at 17:54
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf: Do the numbers yourself. Engine speed and stroke are inversely related precisely because piston speed is limited by lubrication. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf May 28 '17 at 21:39

The size and weight of the pistons is going to be a major hurdle. With a 5.25 in bore and a 4.25 inch stroke, the pistons are massive and don't change directions very easily—there's only so many Gs you can put a shape this large through at the top and bottom of each stroke before the metal starts deforming. Bounce an open umbrella up and down really fast, and you'll start to get the picture.

Cooling would also be a major factor for non-aviation use. Aircraft engines (more or less rightly) assume that there's going to be a large fan out front and/or 100+ mph of airflow. Liquid cooling would allow the heads to maintain a more constant temperature, but would also add weight and complexity.

If you want a faster-revving flat six that will put out more than 100hp and is suitable for automotive use, I might suggest pulling an engine out of a Honda Goldwing or Valkyrie. Given the edited description, though, I'm guessing you're thinking of a drag racer.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ those super big block V8's based on the chevy 454 ( I think it was as 630 something cubic inch ) had a bore of like 5.0 and stroke of 5.8 and they turned up to 7200RPM. Obviously race built and highly specialized parts, but its been done :) $\endgroup$ – sysconfig May 29 '17 at 17:02

I agree with the other posts with the general limiting factors being failure at high rpm and cooling being a problem. Assuming reliability isn't a concern for you... what else will be the limiting factor?

Reliability and cooling aside no-one seems to have mentioned intake restriction or valve train.

The first limiting factor will be how much fuel can your engine injest and burn. So is the engine normally aspirated or forced? NA engines are limited by how much fuel and air they can draw in. So: carbs, intake manifold, cam and valves need to be able to flow enough to produce the power you want. Forced induction makes this a bit simpler.

But as revs rise to produce big HP numbers you are going to hit the glass ceiling of how fast your valve train can function. At some point the valve springs will not be able to close in time (known as valve bounce) and can simply stay open. This affects the compression and combustion strokes and may result in the piston hitting the valve shortly followed by very unpleasant noises.

My answer was given with a stock aero engine as the starting point, thinking about what limitations you would hit as revs rise. Each limitation can be overcome but the solutions get more complex and expensive as revs rise and you chase bigger HP figures.

  • $\begingroup$ yeah, valve float was one of my first concerns. and I was thinking turbocharging. $\endgroup$ – sysconfig May 29 '17 at 18:18
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Yep i agree. But considering OPs question, I tried to answer with a stock aero engine as the starting point. $\endgroup$ – Sir Swears-a-lot May 29 '17 at 20:07

There is nothing physically limiting it but the engines are designed to run optimally in the given range so they may simply not run very well. Of course you could always change the cam timing, spark timing etc. For the record your run of the mill aircraft engine is not all that different than the early Porsche/VW air cooled flat car motors (which were even used on aircraft at one point). You would need to cool it at least partial with an oil system and partially with an air fan much as Porsche did on their pre 996 era cars if you did not want to leverage water cooling (and you dont need to). For the record large bore air cooled engines can develop a lot of horse power and rev very high if built correctly.

For what its worth aircraft engines are far more expensive than their non FAA certified automotive counterparts and you are better off using a car engine simply from a cost perspective.

  • $\begingroup$ yes, plans were to mimic the 911 style cooling with shrouds and fans, and lots of oil capacity and cooling. $\endgroup$ – sysconfig May 29 '17 at 18:20
  • $\begingroup$ The Porsche Mooney you mention had an engine based on the 911, not the 356/VW. 2 extra cylinders, a LOT more horse power, and in later years, higher RPM limits. RPM orange line on my '65 356C is at 5k rpms (and the car is cruise-able at near that), redline is at 5500 and you are booking an engine rebuild at 6k. On the late 70s/early 80s 911sc redline was closer to 7k IIRC... $\endgroup$ – ivanivan Jul 13 '17 at 21:23
  • $\begingroup$ @ivanivan both the 911 3.2 motor and the earlier 356 era 4 cylinder were actually certified for flight. The 4 cyl was used iirc on blimps and yes the Mooney had the 911 motor with an added stepper gearbox for the prop. The redline on my 78 911SC is 6200 RPM but in 5th I am around 3.5K on the highways. 911 Engines with their over cautious bearing setup can be built to redline even higher than that. $\endgroup$ – Dave Jul 14 '17 at 1:21
  • $\begingroup$ @Dave yup. The 3.0sc and 3.2 "Carrera" (real Carreras have 4 cams!) engines are darn near bullet proof. $\endgroup$ – ivanivan Jul 14 '17 at 1:32
  • $\begingroup$ @ivanivan that they are... $\endgroup$ – Dave Jul 14 '17 at 1:47

There are mechanical limits to rpm and volumetric efficiency limits to engine RPM. Mechanical: Piston speed- damaged piston, rod Piston acceleration - ring flutter failure Valve float- catastrophic valve failure Increase RPM results in higher oil temps Volumetric: Ability to intake air is limited by: Airflow limits of intake system: carb airbox Intake tubes Intake manifolds, and ports, valves, cam design and timing. All thees things determine the amount of air the motor is able to intake and that determines the rpm the motor will work best at. More details can be found by looking in a superflow flowbench manual available for free on the net.

Exceed mechanical limits and experience catastrophic failure. I the world of racing I often found mechanical limits by exceeding them. Exceed volumetric limits and see loss of torque.


One could come up with a higher revving aircraft engine and gear it down for subsonic prop operation. That is what Porsche did with its PFM 3200 aircraft engine: took it's 911 flat six and geared it down. While it was a very good engine, with about twice the HP of similar displacement aircraft flat sixes, and was used to equip the Mooney M20L, it was also expensive to buy and had a fairly short TBO. Supposedly, the PFM 3200 sounded magnificent on takeoff.

Porsche exited the market in 2007 after $75 million in development costs to produce and sell around 80 engines. Supposedly, they bought back all of the PFM 3200 engines in use for liability reasons.

In contrast, the Continental and Lycoming flat sixes are much simpler, slower turning pushrod engines, built with an emphasis on reliability, not power to weight. Low RPM means no gearbox to gear down for prop operation, and no gearbox to maintain or fail. They are intended to operate at high power output for long periods of time without failing, as opposed to automotive engines that tend to loaf along at low power output, with an occasional burst of full power. Loss of power in an aircraft is a bit more serious than loss of power in a car, hence the emphasis on reliability.

So, if you want a flat six with lots of HP for non aircraft use... don't look at aircraft engines, unless you want an engine that turns slow, that you can floor for an hour or two regularly.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.