The power output of a piston engine can be considerably increased by using a supercharger to pressurise the air being fed into the cylinders, so that a larger mass of air is used in each working stroke. The use of a supercharger can, therefore, improve the engine’s power-to-weight ratio.
An important advantage of a supercharger is that it enables an engine to operate at higher altitude than it could in normally aspirated (un-supercharged) form. As the altitude increases, the air density falls, and without supercharging the mass of air taken in per working stroke would fall. Since there is less oxygen, less fuel can be burned, and there is a consequent loss of power.
The supercharger enables an aircraft to take off heavily laden from high altitude airfields on hot days. By cruising at high altitude, the aircraft may also sometimes be able to take advantage of strong tail winds.
A supercharger usually consists of a centrifugal compressor driven from the crankshaft. A turbocharger is similar to a supercharger, except that the compressor is driven by a turbine, which is powered by the residual energy in the exhaust gases. Unlike the supercharger, the speed of the turbocharger is, therefore, not directly related to the engine speed. Because it makes use of otherwise wasted heat, the turbocharger is inherently more efficient than a plain supercharger, and has become the type normally used. Both devices can roughly double the power output for a given size and weight of engine.
For small aircraft, the disadvantage of turbocharging is that it adds to the cost and complication of the engine, and the boost pressure is yet another variable that the pilot has to monitor or control. There is little advantage in using a turbocharger, unless the pilot is able to take advantage of the benefits of high altitude operation. This in turn means that either the aircraft must be pressurised, or an oxygen mask and supply system must be provided. Civil aviation regulations require that for high altitude operation, additional instruments, navigation and communication equipment must be installed, and the pilot must be suitably qualified to use them. In recent years, a number of pressurised turbocharged light aircraft have appeared, such as the Cessna Centurion. Garrison (1981) gives a good description of the pros and cons of turbocharged light aircraft.