Why are inlet cones of a lot of aircrafts conical. I read that it has something to do with slowing down supersonic airflow entering inside the engine. Is this true? If so, can somebody please elaborate on it?

Also why does supersonic airflow have to be slowed down before entering the compressor/combustion chamber. Does it cause engine flameout if not slowed down?

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Also I've noticed that the inlet cones of supersonic aircrafts are more pointy than that of subsonic aircrafts. Why is this so?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I would venture to guess that on higher-speed aircraft, you get way more air going into the intake than you need, which is why you want the intakes to have a variable geometry. Alternatively you can sacrifice low-speed air intake volume to sustain higher-speed air volumes. $\endgroup$
    – zymhan
    Feb 7, 2020 at 20:52

1 Answer 1


As Wikipedia explains it:

The main purpose of an inlet cone is to slow the flow of air from supersonic flight speed to a subsonic speed before it enters the engine. Except for scramjet engines, all airbreathing jet engines need subsonic airflow to operate properly, and require a diffuser to prevent supersonic airflow inside the engine. At supersonic flight speeds a conical shock wave, sloping rearwards, forms at the apex of the cone. Air passing through the conical shock wave (and subsequent reflections) slows to a low supersonic speed. The air then passes through a strong normal shock wave, within the diffuser passage, and exits at a subsonic velocity. The resulting intake system is more efficient (in terms of pressure recovery) than the much simpler pitot intake.

If the flow was supersonic inside the engine, it would not be able to maintain fuel burn.

The pointyness of supersonic jets' inlet cone is dictated by the distance from the tip of the cone to the engine inlet and the inlet diameter. Also, the shockwave must be kept at right location in relation to the engine inlet, so the location of the cone is adjustable (by computer)

The inlet cone is shaped so that the shock wave that forms on its apex is directed to the lip of the intake; this allows the intake to operate properly in supersonic flight. As speed increases, the shock wave becomes increasingly more oblique (the cone gets narrower). For higher flight speeds inlet cones are designed to move axially to control how the capture area varies with the duct internal throat area. For best intake operation this required area ratio gets bigger with increasing flight Mach number, hence the large inlet cone movement on the SR-71 which had to perform well from low speeds to Mach 3.2.

The engine in the first picture is not of a supersonic aircraft. It is a high bypass turbofan, and the cone in that engine has no other function but to serve as an aerodynamic form covering the end of the axel. The other picture (actually quite obviousy taken form the Wikipedia article I referenced above...) is a supersonic engine inlet cone of MiG-21MF

For the most interesting reading about supersonic engines, please see this Wikipedia article about the J58, an engineering marvel from more than sixty years ago. It still stands as one of, if not the most inspirational jet engine.

The article has a nice schliering photograph of what happens when the shocwave is not in the place it should be (NASA document ID: C-1955-37520, public domain):

NASA document ID: C-1955-37520

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    $\begingroup$ Is the cone on the turbofan in the first photo really slowing down the air? It almost seems like it's an aerodynamic "cap" over the flat center of the fan. $\endgroup$
    – zymhan
    Feb 7, 2020 at 20:50
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ No it is not @zymhan , as you stated it has no other function but to be as aerodynamic as possible. I'll ad that to my answer asap. $\endgroup$
    – Jpe61
    Feb 7, 2020 at 20:53

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