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As undoubtedly some of the most amazing pieces of machinery ever built, it’s gotta take something special to power them. What do planes use for fuel?
Most airplanes don’t run on the same type of gasoline. Instead, most airplanes (including commercial and military airplanes) run on kerosene-based fuel depending on the type of aircraft and the type of engine. Smaller airplanes use AvGas, which is more similar to normal gasoline.
Airplanes, in our perhaps biased opinion, are the most amazing vehicles and pieces of machinery that have become ever so popular in the last century. They’re just amazing. But what type of fuel do they use to propel these massive chunks of metal up into the sky? In this article, you’ll learn about all the different types of aviation fuel that planes use around the world everyday.
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Do Airplanes Run On Normal Gasoline?
How convenient it would be to just be able to have a few jugs of gasoline on your garage that you could use to fill up your car or your airplane before you go for a drive or a flight. After all, they’re both just vehicles powered by engines, how different can the fuel really be? If you read no further, just know that it’s a terrible idea to put regular gasoline into an airplane! The fuels are actually very different!
The majority of most aviation fuel is kerosene-based. While the building blocks of kerosene are the same hydrocarbons used for gasoline — both fuels are made from crude oil (or petroleum) — the final fuel products are very different. We’ll save you from getting into the nitty-gritty details and chemistry of kerosene versus gasoline.
The main thing to keep in mind is that kerosene is far less volatile and more stable than gasoline, making it more predictable. Aviation fuels also typically have a number of additional additives such as antifreeze, antioxidants, metal deactivators, and more. These are included to prevent corrosion within the fuel system and, more importantly, to prevent freezing under the extreme temperatures and heights that airplanes fly at.
But even within the realm of kerosene-based fuels used for aviation, there are many different final products that can be made. So how do you know which type of fuel goes in which airplane?
What Determines What Kind Of Fuel An Airplane Can Use?
With all the different types of kerosene-based aviation fuel that you’ll see below, it can be tough to know which fuel is the right one. Stated as simply as possible, the type of fuel used in an airplane depends nearly entirely on the type of airplane, the type of engine that the airplane has, and the conditions that it will be flown at.
Fighter jets and commercial airplanes might both use kerosene-based fuel, but the exact makeup of that fuel will be different. This is because these planes have different engines, fly at different conditions, and are expected to perform different. On the other end of the spectrum, piston-powered personal aircraft don’t use kerosene-based fuel at all.
Let’s dive into the different types of planes and see what they actually run on.
What Do Commercial Airplanes Use For Fuel?
For the most part, commercial planes use kerosene-based jet fuel since they have jet engines. The different jet fuels available for most commercial airliners include:
- Jet A — The most common commercial aviation fuel in the United States, Jet A fuel was developed to be heavier and have higher flash and freezing points than pure kerosene. Jet A is widely used by major airlines across the country.
- Jet A1 — One of the most common fuels used by turbine-engine airplanes (especially outside of the United States), Jet A1 has a slightly lower flash point than Jet A, but they’re similar in composition.
- Jet B — Designed for use by airplanes that operate in cold conditions, Jet B fuel is a combination of kerosene and gasoline. This helps bring the freezing point all the way down to -76°F, allowing operation in conditions that other fuels cannot.
What Is AvGas & Which Planes Use It?
The type of aviation fuel that is most similar to the gasoline that you put in your car is known as AvGas, short for aviation gasoline. This type of fuel, as you might have guessed, is really only used on smaller airplanes that are powered by piston engines. That’s because piston engines like that are similar in operation to the engines in cars and trucks.
Just like in a car engine, this type of fuel is injected into the cylinders of the plane’s engine and as the engine goes through its compression stroke, the fuel and air are compressed together and ignited. This ignition creates the power in the engine and enables it to run. Due to the similarities between airplane piston engines and automobile piston engines, AvGas is similar to normal gasoline.
But it’s not quite the same. While the properties and use of the fuel is similar, AvGas comes in different grades than normal car gasoline. Most notably, the octanes used in AvGas aviation fuel are higher than the octanes that you’ll put in your car. This type of fuel is more similar to the super high octane gasoline that is used in high-powered racecar engines.
Do Military Aircraft Use Special Jet Fuel?
While private and commercial airplanes are amazing and seem like some of the most technologically advanced pieces of machinery in the world, military aircraft step it up a notch. A big notch. From fighter jets and transport aircraft to drones and spy planes, military aircraft are the most advanced planes in the world.
So it’s safe to assume that they use different types of fuel than what you’ve read about so far for most other types of planes. The most common military-grade aviation fuel include:
- JP-1 — The original jet fuel used by the military, JP-1 fuel is simply pure kerosene. While it worked well for what it was, it was eventually replaced with other fuels that used more advanced combinations of kerosene and additives.
- JP-2/3 — Originally designed to replace JP-1, JP-2 jet fuel was created with a higher freezing point. This was then, in turn, replaced by JP-3 which was more volatile. Both fuels were unstable and have long since been retired from use.
- JP-4 — A bit of a unique jet fuel, JP-4 is clear (or transparent in color) and smells a lot like kerosene. With its low flash point of 0°F and it’s low density, this fuel floats on water, evaporates incredibly quickly, and would not ignite if you dropped a match in it.
- JP-5 — A yellow fuel with a high flash point of 140°F thanks to the inclusion of additives such as additional hydrocarbons, alkenes, aromatic hydrocarbons, and naphthenes.
- JP-6 — Designed to be used specifically with the XB-70 Valkyrie supersonic bomber, JP-6 fuel was made for the GE YJ 93 engine. It can stand up to the high stressed of supersonic flight that these planes experience.
- JP-7 — If you’re lucky enough to ever fly in a supersonic jet, this is likely the fuel that the airplane will be using. JP-7 was designed for use with the SR-71 Blackbird, which is the fastest plane ever.
- JP-8 — This is somewhat similar to the common commercial airliner fuel Jet A1 from above. Extra additives are included in the fuel to prevent corrosion and freezing.
As you can see, there are many different types of airplane fuel out there depending on the type of plane and the engine that the plane uses. Always make sure you know what type of aviation fuel your plane runs on before you fill it up!