Modern Day, Two Minute Read

Igniting Power – How Does an Afterburner Work?

In the realm of aviation and aerospace, the afterburner stands as a testament to our quest for speed and performance.

This fiery component of a jet engine gives aircraft the extra thrust needed to fly faster, reach higher altitudes, or take off from shorter runways.

But how does an afterburner accomplish this remarkable feat? In this article, we’ll delve into the inner workings of this engineering marvel.

The Basics

To understand the afterburner, we first need to understand the basics of a jet engine.

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A typical jet engine operates on the principle of air intake, compression, combustion, and exhaust. Air is sucked into the front of the engine, where it is compressed by a series of fan blades.

Despite first flying in the late 40s the later model F7Us had afterburners.
Despite first flying in the late 40s the later model F7Us had afterburners.

This compressed air is then mixed with fuel and ignited, creating a high-pressure, high-temperature gas that rushes out of the back of the engine, propelling the aircraft forward.

The Role of the Afterburner

The afterburner is a component added to the end of the jet engine.

While the regular combustion process within a jet engine is quite efficient, not all the oxygen in the air is consumed. The afterburner’s purpose is to take advantage of this leftover oxygen.

When the pilot activates the afterburner, additional fuel is injected into the exhaust stream of the jet engine.

Since there’s still plenty of oxygen available, this additional fuel ignites, creating a secondary combustion process.

The MiG-31's engines are extremely powerful.
The MiG-31BM taking off under full power. Photo credit – Andrei Shmatko – CC BY-SA 4.0.

This not only significantly increases the engine’s thrust but also results in the dramatic flames seen shooting from the exhausts of aircraft with afterburners engaged.

The Trade-off

The most significant trade-off with afterburners is fuel efficiency.

Afterburners consume a substantial amount of fuel. When engaged, they can increase an engine’s fuel consumption by as much as a factor of two or more.

This increased fuel usage reduces the aircraft’s range and endurance, meaning it will have to refuel more often.

As a result, afterburners are generally used sparingly, reserved for when their benefits (increased speed and power) outweigh their costs (increased fuel consumption).

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The use of an afterburner greatly increases an aircraft’s heat signature.

Aircraft with their afterburners lit produce a huge amount of heat.
Aircraft with their afterburners lit produce a huge amount of heat.

This can make the aircraft more detectable to infrared (IR) sensors and heat-seeking missiles, an important consideration in military operations.

The operation of afterburners generates a lot more noise compared to normal engine operation. This can be a problem for operations near populated areas and can lead to increased fatigue for the aircraft crew.

Using an afterburner puts extra stress on the engine, particularly the exhaust sections. The high temperature of afterburner operation can lead to increased wear and tear and reduce the overall lifespan of the engine.

Variations of Afterburners

There are several types of afterburners, each with its design and advantages.

The standard type, or “turbojet” afterburner, is found on most military aircraft. “Turbofan” afterburners are used on engines where bypass air (air that bypasses the main combustion chamber) is mixed with the exhaust gases before entering the afterburner.

This is a more efficient design, often used on modern military aircraft and some high-speed civilian aircraft.


While not a perfect system, the afterburner has revolutionized the capabilities of jet-powered aircraft.

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It represents a clever solution to the problem of achieving maximum performance when needed, despite the trade-off in fuel efficiency.

As technology advances, the afterburner remains a key area of study and refinement, holding the potential for even more impressive feats of speed and power in the future of aviation.

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