So I don't have my pilots licence, but I was part of the Australian Air Force Cadets for nearly 8 years (wonderful organisation). During this time I went on a number of flights in Cessna 172's and Cessna 152's. I always noticed that as part of the pre-flight check, the pilot checked both magneto's and this corresponded to a slight RPM drop on the engine.

Why does the lack of a magneto affect engine RPM?


2 Answers 2


Firstly, to understand the answer, we need to understand that the Cessna 152's and 172's run a 4 Cylinder, Horizontally-opposed Engine. Each Cylinder has 2 spark plugs, one on the top side of the cylinder head, and one on the bottom side. The spark plug ignites the fuel/air mixture that has been sucked into the engine, and causes a controlled burn to push the piston down the cylinder and turn the crankshaft in turn (hence turning the propeller as it is connected to the end of the crankshaft).

Now, as I've stated, each cylinder has two spark plugs, one connected to the "left" magneto, and one connected to the "right". If we turn one magneto "off" (or ground it to be politically correct), only one spark plug in each cylinder will "fire" to ignite the fuel/air mixture. This causes the mixture to have a delayed and less effective burn, meaning that the piston does not get pushed down the cylinder as effectively, meaning the crankshaft will not rotate as fast, and hence, leads to a drop in the Propeller RPM (Revolutions per Minute).

We check the magnetos on the ground to check that:

A. They both work, and the engine won't die if we lose a magneto (we should be able to return to land on the remaining serviceable magneto)

B. We are checking that there is no "Spark Plug Fouling". The fuel we use in aviation contains lead, and hence after a time of running the engine at low power settings on the ground, the lead in the fuel will accumulate on the spark plug head (instead of being burnt off when the engine is working under power), and cause the spark plug to let off a limited spark, or completely block the spark, hence again, making our engine less efficient.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Thats a great answer. I'll leave off marking it as correct (in true StackExchange tradition) for about a day. But great work, that makes a lot of sense. $\endgroup$
    – JamesENL
    Aug 21, 2014 at 10:29
  • $\begingroup$ Glad I could help :) Just out of curiosity, where did you do AAFC? $\endgroup$
    – James Ham
    Aug 21, 2014 at 10:30
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ 713 Squadron - Cannington $\endgroup$
    – JamesENL
    Aug 21, 2014 at 10:30
  • $\begingroup$ Excellent answer. Concise, easy to understand, and accurate. $\endgroup$ Aug 21, 2014 at 15:48
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    $\begingroup$ I would also add that, C. it checks for proper magneto grounding. If you flipped it from both to left or right and nothing happened, then one of the magnetos may not be properly grounded, which creates a hazard if anyone tried to turn the prop by hand. $\endgroup$ Aug 21, 2014 at 16:03

Assuming that one knows how engines work, one can explain it this way as well: Two spark plugs that fire simultaneously provide two spark locations that are physically apart from each other where the flame from each spark need to ignite only half of the charge so to speak or in other words the flame from each spark need to travel only half the distance (roughly) to complete its portion of the charge, where burning of the total charge is accomplished earlier in the down-stroke of the piston generating more work over the total piston stoke. Hope that is understandable as well. That also explains why late ignition timing reduces power.


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