In a typical turbofan jet engine the oncoming airflow is compressed throughout a series of compressor stages, mixed with a fuel (typically kerosene) and combusted, drastically increasing pressure and temperature, and then expanded through a nozzle to provide thrust towards the rear of the aircraft. By accelerating the fluid towards aft, Newton’s Third Law implies that this impulse must be reacted by an equal and opposite force in the opposite direction, thus propelling the aircraft forward. However, modern jet engines are also capable of producing thrust in the opposing direction. How is this possible without completely changing the direction of airflow from the exhaust to the intake which would seriously damage various engine components?

Diagram of a typical gas turbine jet engine. Air is compressed by the fan blades as it enters the engine, and it is mixed and burned with fuel in the combustion section. The hot exhaust gases provide forward thrust and turn the turbines which drive the compressor fan blades. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thrust reversal is achieved by momentarily diverting the hot exhaust gases towards the front of the aircraft or changing the propeller/compressor pitch so that the thrust produced is directed forward. Thus thrust will act against the forward direction of travel and provide a means of deceleration. Thrust reversal is used in some flight scenarios in order to,

  • Alleviate the stress and reduce wear on the brakes or to enable shorter landing distances. Reverse thrust can reduce the braking distance by a third or more!
  • Momentarily increase the braking force during emergencies or just after touchdown when the aircraft is still traveling at a high velocity and the residual aerodynamic lift is significant. Lift reduces the normal reaction force with the ground and therefore limits friction and grip on the tyres.
  • Rapid deceleration in flight to enable quick changes of speed. Most aircraft cannot operate thrust reversal in flight and the majority that can are propeller-driven.
  • Helping to push an aircraft back from a gate. A maneuver called “powerback”.

Almost everyone who has sat in a row near the wings will have heard reverse thrust in action before. Next time you land wait for the sudden high-pitched increase in engine noise just after touchdown.

The method to achieve thrust reversal varies greatly between the different types of engines:

  • Since the 1930s propeller-driven aircraft generate reverse thrust by changing the angle of attack of their controllable pitch propellers:
    • Older reciprocating engines and modern turboprop engines both have the ability to set the propeller angle to “flat pitch”. As a result the propellor airfoils produce no forward or reverse thrust, but large amounts of drag instead. This allows the engine speed to be kept at a constant speed while descending.
    • The classic approach is to pitch the propeller blades to a negative angle of attack in order to direct the thrust forward.
  • In jet engines thrust reversal is not accomplished by running the engine in reverse but by diverting the high-velocity exhaust jet blast to the front of the engines. This can be achieved in different ways:
      1. The target-type thrust reverser: After the combustion chamber, reverser blades angle outward in order to prematurely redirect the high-speed jet radially outwards and towards the front of the engine. This construction generally gives the appearance of flower petals.
      2. The clamshell type: Two reverser buckets are hinged at the aft of the engine, and when deployed, intrude into the exhaust of the engine. In this manner the jet blast is captured and re-oriented towards the front.
      3. In a turbofan engine some of the air intake is not passed through the main part of the engine, but redirected along an outside channel without being combusted. This bypass duct is aptly named “cold flow” and this arrangement is used to save fuel and reduce engine noise. Furthermore, the bypass flow can also be used to channel air radially outwards and forwards to provide thrust reversal.

The three different types of thrust mechanisms explained above (1).

Youtube has some great videos showing thrust reversal in action: Reverse Thrust 1

The following video is especially great since the flow reversal of the air can actually be seen by water sprayed up on the tarmac ahead of the turbines: Reverse Thrust 2






References and Further Reading

(1) Purdue University. “Thrust Reversing”.

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