Red Bull Air Race pilots demand the very best from their aircraft, and that’s why the Lycoming Thunderbolt has been the official engine of the series for the past four years.
It’s powerful, reliable, and able to withstand whatever punishment the best pilots in the world throw at it. Not surprisingly, it also performs fantastically with a wide range of other planes, so you don’t need to be a professional athlete to get the most out of one of these zippy little engines.
The Thunderbolt has an interesting history. With the increasing popularity of modified engines, the forward-thinkers at Lycoming decided to come up with a super-powered, highly customisable beast of their own, and so the Thunderbolt was released to much applause. Each engine is built to order and rigorously tested to make sure it’s up to the high standards that Lycoming have become synonymous with.
The Thunderbolt remains popular with pilots from a broad range of backgrounds, flying a huge array of planes in vastly different situations. Home builders love the options available to them, as they can customise it to match the distinct personality of their craft. Acrobatic pilots swear by the Thunderbolt because it performs admirably even when being tossed around and battered by G-forces. And the Red Bull guys reckon it’s ace because, well, no competing engine has been able to come close.
A major reason that the Thunderbolt appeals to such a wide range of pilots is that there are three very distinct variations – the Signature, the Extreme, and the Competition. They’re all heavily customisable and certain to deliver the greatest performance possible.
The Signature series will be of most interest to your average pilot, because they match power and versatility with reliability and user-friendly features. There’s more than enough raw power for anything you’d want to do, but these engines are still suited for any home-built aircraft without becoming too much to handle.
There are a number of engines within the Signature class, including the smaller 235 and 340, but the pick of the bunch is the exceptional 360. It’s a turbo-normalised, intercooled, fuel-injected gasoline engine, that’s nominally rated at 180HP from sea level to greater than 20,000 feet altitude. It’s a four-cylinder, direct-drive, horizontally-opposed, air-cooled model that’s been optimally packaged in order to allow it to occupy a similar space as many IO-360 models, despite the increase in power.
The electronic engine control system, dubbed iE2, uses electronic fuel injection and ignition, an integrated electronic knock sensor and a holistic approach to engine management, which means pilots have individual control of each cylinder. It’s this sort of innovation that helps the Thunderbolt to stand out, and give pilots the most control possible.
These engines feature a number of other standout features, including precision static balancing to within half a gram, an impressive impulse coupled magneto ignition system, and a choice between Airflow Performance or Precision Airmotive fuel injection systems.
The customisation extends to a choice of colour schemes – either titanium, which looks particularly smart, or a more aggressive gloss black.
The most important thing to know about the Signature is that it’s definitely an engine for regular pilots. You won’t go spinning out of control or break the time-space continuum when you put a bit of pressure on the throttle, because it’s designed to be friendly and hand out its power in a sensible manner. It’s a wonderful piece of machinery, but it’s not meant to replicate the experience of being in the Air Race – and that’s definitely a good thing.
The Extreme is designed for experienced pilots only, so don’t hunt around for one if you’ve just walked out of training school. It’s a challenging engine that purrs in the right hands, and you certainly need a few years of flying in the bank in order to get the most out of it.
This thing accelerates quickly, which can make it tough to handle at first, but also means that it’s perfectly suited to high-impact flying styles, such as pulling off acrobatic manoeuvres. The Extreme has the oomph needed to link multiple fancy moves together, because as soon as you’re finished with a loop-de-loop, it’s ready to power you into a spiral.
In the right hands, this power is also a pilot’s best friend, as it opens up many more options for getting out of tricky situations. Of course, that shouldn’t happen too often, because every single engine that comes out of the Lycoming factory has been rigorously tested, so it’s not going to let you down.
The Extreme features an improved piston system, with a 10:1 compression ratio, giving it that extra bit of kick needed to compete with the big boys. It’s a perfectly-rounded system that will put the exclamation mark on any carefully-designed kit plane, stunt bird or racer. But it’s not the be-all and end-all of Thunderbolts, because there is another step up – and it’s a big one.
The Competition Series are the type used by the professionals, so when you watch the Red Bull Air Race, these are the ones you’re seeing. Obviously, that means that they’re only for highly advanced and incredibly skilled pilots who can harness their unbridled power and make the most of all the fancy features.
These engines operate far beyond the norm in power and performance, and for this reason they don’t carry a warranty. We can’t stress enough that these are brilliant engines – world beaters without a doubt – but also require a great deal of responsibility because they’ve got so much zip.
All three classes can be tailored to meet the requirements of you and your plane, so it’s best to have a chat with the engineers from Lycoming regarding just what they can do for you. Major components that can be modified include the ignition system, which has a huge number of options.
With a traditional ignition system, you can choose from more than a different options according to your needs and wants. You could go with a slick setup, or tune the magneto any way you want to. The options aren’t quite endless, but it’s pretty close.
You can also go with an Electronic Magneto option, which has the benefit of producing its own electrical power, saving money and making them immune to interruption of the aircraft electrical bus. Having a truly independent power source is certainly an appealing option.
The Lycoming Thunderbolt series of turbo engines have been lighting up the skies for more than a decade, and have allowed pilots from around the world to get the most out of their planes whilst giving them a huge amount of flexibility. Whether you’re a weekend warrior who wants something easy and cheap to maintain, an experienced acrobat of the skies who needs more power, or an aspiring comp pilot who requires the very best, there’s a Thunderbolt ready to get the job done.
After all, if they can handle the rigours of the Red Bull Air Race, Thunderbolts can handle anything.