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Photographs of a round, fat subsonic inlet, a sharp cone
 supersonic inlet and a rectangular supersonic inlet.

Most modern passenger and military aircraft are powered by gas turbine engines, which are also called jet engines. There are several different types of gas turbine engines, but all turbine engines have some parts in common. All turbine engines have an inlet to bring free stream air into the engine. The inlet sits upstream of the compressor and, while the inlet does no work on the flow, inlet performance has a strong influence on engine net thrust. As shown in the figures above, inlets come in a variety of shapes and sizes with the specifics usually dictated by the speed of the aircraft.


For aircraft that cannot go faster than the speed of sound, like large airliners, a simple, straight, short inlet works quite well. On a typical subsonic inlet, the surface of the inlet from outside to inside is a continuous smooth curve with some thickness from inside to outside. The most upstream portion of the inlet is called the highlight, or the inlet lip. A subsonic aircraft has an inlet with a relatively thick lip.


An inlet for a supersonic aircraft, on the other hand, has a relatively sharp lip. The inlet lip is sharpened to minimize the performance losses from shock waves that occur during supersonic flight. For a supersonic aircraft, the inlet must slow the flow down to subsonic speeds before the air reaches the compressor. Some supersonic inlets, like the one at the upper right, use a central cone to shock the flow down to subsonic speeds. Other inlets, like the one shown at the lower left, use flat hinged plates to generate the compression shocks, with the resulting inlet geometry having a rectangular cross section. This variable geometry inlet is used on the F-14 and F-15 fighter aircraft. More exotic inlet shapes are used on some aircraft for a variety of reasons. The inlets of the Mach 3+ SR-71 aircraft are specially designed to allow cruising flight at high speed. The inlets of the SR-71 actually produce thrust during flight.


Inlets for hypersonic aircraft present the ultimate design challenge. For ramjet-powered aircraft, the inlet must bring the high speed external flow down to subsonic conditions in the burner. High stagnation temperatures are present in this speed regime and variable geometry may not be an option for the inlet designer because of possible flow leaks through the hinges. For scramjet-powered aircraft, the heat environment is even worse because the flight Mach number is higher than that for a ramjet-powered aircraft. Scramjet inlets are highly integrated with the fuselage of the aircraft. On the X-43A, the inlet includes the entire lower surface of the aircraft forward of the cowl lip. Thick, hot boundary layers are usually present on the compression surfaces of hypersonic inlets. The flow exiting a scramjet inlet must remain supersonic.


An inlet must operate efficiently over the entire flight envelope of the aircraft. At very low aircraft speeds, or when just sitting on the runway, free stream air is pulled into the engine by the compressor. In England, inlets are called intakes, which is a more accurate description of their function at low aircraft speeds. At high speeds, a good inlet will allow the aircraft to maneuver to high angles of attack and sideslip without disrupting flow to the compressor. Because the inlet is so important to overall aircraft operation, it is usually designed and tested by the airframe company, not the engine manufacturer. But because inlet operation is so important to engine performance, all engine manufacturers also employ inlet aerodynamicists. The amount of disruption of the flow is characterized by a numerical inlet distortion index. Different airframers use different indices, but all of the indices are based on ratios of the local variation of pressure to the average pressure at the compressor face.

The ratio of the average total pressure at the compressor face to the free stream total pressure is called the total pressure recovery. Pressure recovery is another inlet performance index; the higher the value, the better the inlet. For hypersonic inlets the value of pressure recovery is very low and nearly constant because of shock losses, so hypersonic inlets are normally characterized by their kinetic energy efficiency. If the airflow demanded by the engine is much less than the airflow that can be captured by the inlet, then the difference in airflow is spilled around the inlet. The airflow mis-match can produce spillage drag on the aircraft.


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Editor: Nancy Hall
NASA Official: Nancy Hall
Last Updated: May 13 2021

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