During normal combustion, the fuel-air mixture burns in a very controlled and predictable manner. In a spark ignition engine, the process occurs in a fraction of a second. The mixture actually begins to burn at the point where it is ignited by the spark plugs. It then burns away from the plugs until it is completely consumed. This type of combustion causes a smooth build-up of temperature and pressure and ensures that the expanding gases deliver the maximum force to the piston at exactly the right time in the power stroke. [Figure] Detonation is an uncontrolled, explosive ignition of the fuel-air mixture within the cylinder’s combustion chamber. It causes excessive temperatures and pressures which, if not corrected, can quickly lead to failure of the piston, cylinder, or valves. In less severe cases, detonation causes engine overheating, roughness, or loss of power.

Combustion of Aircraft reciprocating Engine
Normal combustion and explosive combustion
Detonation is characterized by high cylinder head temperatures and is most likely to occur when operating at high power settings. Common operational causes of detonation are:
  • Use of a lower fuel grade than that specified by the aircraft manufacturer
  • Operation of the engine with extremely high manifold pressures in conjunction with low rpm
  • Operation of the engine at high power settings with an excessively lean mixture
  • Maintaining extended ground operations or steep climbs in which cylinder cooling is reduced

Detonation may be avoided by following these basic guidelines during the various phases of ground and flight operations:
  • Ensure that the proper grade of fuel is used.
  • Keep the cowl flaps (if available) in the full-open position while on the ground to provide the maximum airflow through the cowling.
  • Use an enriched fuel mixture, as well as a shallow climb angle, to increase cylinder cooling during takeoff and initial climb.
  • Avoid extended, high power, steep climbs.
  • Develop the habit of monitoring the engine instruments to verify proper operation according to procedures established by the manufacturer.
Preignition occurs when the fuel-air mixture ignites prior to the engine’s normal ignition event. Premature burning is usually caused by a residual hot spot in the combustion chamber, often created by a small carbon deposit on a spark plug, a cracked spark plug insulator, or other damage in the cylinder that causes a part to heat sufficiently to ignite the fuel-air charge. Preignition causes the engine to lose power and produces high operating temperature. As with detonation, preignition may also cause severe engine damage because the expanding gases exert excessive pressure on the piston while still on its compression stroke.
Detonation and preignition often occur simultaneously and one may cause the other. Since either condition causes high engine temperature accompanied by a decrease in engine performance, it is often difficult to distinguish between the two. Using the recommended grade of fuel and operating the engine within its proper temperature, pressure, and rpm ranges reduce the chance of detonation or preignition.