Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Caring For Your Aircraft

Part III: All About Your Aircraft’s Ignition System

A New Twist
Our experts agree that there will always be a place for the lowly, but intensely reliable, magneto in the piston aviation world. In fact, research continues today to make the magneto even more efficient and reliable using new, advanced materials and new technologies. Champion and other aerospace ignition-component companies have also made great strides in improving the humble spark plug, with specialized copper cores and insulators made of innovative materials. "The system works, and works extraordinarily well," agrees Christopher. "Nevertheless, we continue to evaluate new opportunities to improve performance and increase the reliability of our systems in order to add value for our customers."

We know that the engine keeps running based on electrical current, but many of us are confused as to the actual role of batteries, magnetos, spark plugs and all the rest.
FADEC (full authority digital engine control) has completely changed the entire ignition system, relying on computers—and not magnetos—to time and generate the pulses going to the cylinders. Coming from the automotive world, FADEC introduces a new way to control the ignition system, allowing less pilot involvement, but adding greater cost, more hardware and complexity.

In addition to the standard magneto, Champion also offers the LASAR electronic ignition system that, unlike FADEC, still uses magnetos, but also electronically controls the timing of pulses and the entire envelope of engine performance through a microprocessor. This system monitors all kinds of critical engine parameters in real time and varies performance settings accordingly. In the event of a controller failure or loss of aircraft power, the system reverts to standard magneto operation. Though not yet significant in number, electronic ignition systems are slowly making their way into GA.

The most important thing to remember with regard to ignition systems is that they should be considered one of the most critical systems in the airplane. There are many resources to better understand how your aircraft ignition system works, and the University of North Dakota has put together an excellent animated "virtual" explanation of it on their website at Other great resources are available at the Champion Aerospace website (they acquired the Slick product line from Unison Industries) at


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