Ever wondered about those little exhaust pipes protruding from the tails of many jets and turboprops? Well, your eyes aren’t deceiving you— in many cases those are indeed jet engine exhausts, from small “extra” jet engines known as “APUs.”
An “APU” (Auxiliary Power Unit) is a small turbine engine installed to provide supplementary power. Often found in the tails of larger jets and turboprops, APUs serve several useful purposes.
APU generators provide auxiliary electrical power for running aircraft systems on the ground when the main engines aren’t running and no ground electrical power is available. Applications include powering environmental systems for pre-cooling or preheating the cabin, and providing power for crew functions such as preflight, cabin cleanup, and galley (kitchen) operation. Many aircraft APUs can also be operated in flight, providing backup power for the main engine generators.
On larger aircraft, APUs also generate auxiliary “bleed air”, referring to pneumatic pressure drawn from the engine’s compressor section. That’s because large jet engines like those on airliners must be started using pneumatic power. Unless a ground pneumatic source is available, the only way to start large turbine engines is from an operating APU (unless another engine is already running, of course). To accomplish this, the small APU engine is first started using an electric motor (often doing double duty as the generator). Once up and running, APU bleed air is routed to pneumatic starters on the plane’s main engines. Those, in turn, spin up the engine compressors for starting.
This schematic shows a typical APU installation. Along with providing ground power, APUs often provide backup pneumatic power for pressurization in flight, and back up environmental systems on the ground and in the air.
©2013, 2020 Gregory N. Brown
To learn more about turbine aircraft and how they work, see Greg’s new The Turbine Pilot’s Flight Manual Fourth Edition, coauthored with Mark Holt. Available in print and ebook. (Autographed copies available.)