Propeller (aeronautics)

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See also: Propeller
The feathered propellers of an RAF Hercules C.4

An aircraft propeller or airscrew[1] converts rotary motion from a piston engine, a turboprop or an electric motor, to provide propulsive force. Its pitch may be fixed or variable. Early aircraft propellers were carved by hand from solid or laminated wood, while later propellers were constructed of metal. Modern designs use high-technology composite materials.

The propeller attaches to the crankshaft of a piston engine, either directly or through a reduction unit. A light aircraft engine may not require the complexity of gearing, which is essential on a larger engine or on a turboprop aircraft.


ATR 72 propeller in flight.

Italian scientist Leonardo da Vinci made sketches of an “air screw” human-powered helicopter with no practical application between 1487 and 1490.[2]

The twisted airfoil (aerofoil) shape of an aircraft propeller was pioneered by the Wright Brothers. While some earlier engineers had attempted to model air propellers on marine propellers, the Wright Brothers realized that a propeller is essentially the same as a wing, and were able to use data from their earlier wind tunnel experiments on wings, introducing a twist along the length of the blades. This was necessary to maintain a more uniform angle of attack of the blade along its length.[3] Their original propeller blades had an efficiency of about 82%,[4] compared to the 90% of modern propellers.[5] Mahogany was the wood preferred for propellers through World War I, but wartime shortages encouraged use of walnut, oak, cherry and ash.[6]

Alberto Santos Dumont was another early pioneer, having designed propellers before the Wright Brothers (albeit not as efficient)[7] for his airships. He applied the knowledge he gained from experiences with airships to make a propeller with a steel shaft and aluminium blades for his 14 bis biplane. Some of his designs used a bent aluminium sheet for blades, thus creating an airfoil shape. They were heavily undercambered, and this plus the absence of lengthwise twist made them less efficient than the Wright propellers.[8] Even so, this was perhaps the first use of aluminium in the construction of an airscrew.

Originally, a rotating airfoil behind the aircraft, which pushes it, was called a propeller, while one which pulled from the front was a tractor.[9] Later the term 'pusher' became adopted for the rear-mounted device in contrast to the tractor configuration and both became referred to as 'propellers' or 'airscrews'.

The understanding of low speed propeller aerodynamics was fairly complete by the 1920s, but later requirements to handle more power in a smaller diameter have made the problem more complex.

Theory and design of aircraft propellers

A well-designed propeller typically has an efficiency of around 80% when operating in the best regime.[10] The efficiency of the propeller is influenced by the angle of attack (α). This is defined as α = Φ - θ,[11] where θ is the helix angle (the angle between the resultant relative velocity and the blade rotation direction) and Φ is the blade pitch angle. Very small pitch and helix angles give a good performance against resistance but provide little thrust, while larger angles have the opposite effect. The best helix angle is when the blade is acting as a wing producing much more lift than drag. Angle of attack is similar to advance ratio, for propellers.

A propeller's efficiency is determined by[12]

\eta = \frac{\hbox{propulsive power out}}{\hbox{shaft power in}} = \frac{\hbox{thrust}\cdot\hbox{axial speed}}{\hbox{resistance torque}\cdot\hbox{rotational speed}}.

Propellers are similar in aerofoil section to a low-drag wing and as such are poor in operation when at other than their optimum angle of attack. Therefore, some propellers use a variable pitch mechanism to alter the blades' pitch angle as engine speed and aircraft velocity are changed.

The three-bladed propeller of a light aircraft: the Vans RV-7A

A further consideration is the number and the shape of the blades used. Increasing the aspect ratio of the blades reduces drag but the amount of thrust produced depends on blade area, so using high-aspect blades can result in an excessive propeller diameter. A further balance is that using a smaller number of blades reduces interference effects between the blades, but to have sufficient blade area to transmit the available power within a set diameter means a compromise is needed. Increasing the number of blades also decreases the amount of work each blade is required to perform, limiting the local Mach number - a significant performance limit on propellers.

A propeller's performance suffers as the blade speed nears the transonic. As the relative air speed at any section of a propeller is a vector sum of the aircraft speed and the tangential speed due to rotation, a propeller blade tip will reach transonic speed well before the aircraft does. When the airflow over the tip of the blade reaches its critical speed, drag and torque resistance increase rapidly and shock waves form creating a sharp increase in noise. Aircraft with conventional propellers, therefore, do not usually fly faster than Mach 0.6. There have been propeller aircraft which attained up to the Mach 0.8 range, but the low propeller efficiency at this speed makes such applications rare.

There have been efforts to develop propellers for aircraft at high subsonic speeds.[13] The 'fix' is similar to that of transonic wing design. The maximum relative velocity is kept as low as possible by careful control of pitch to allow the blades to have large helix angles; thin blade sections are used and the blades are swept back in a scimitar shape (Scimitar propeller); a large number of blades are used to reduce work per blade and so circulation strength; contra-rotation is used. The propellers designed are more efficient than turbo-fans and their cruising speed (Mach 0.7–0.85) is suitable for airliners, but the noise generated is tremendous (see the Antonov An-70 and Tupolev Tu-95 for examples of such a design).

Forces acting on a propeller

Five forces act on the blades of an aircraft propeller in motion, they are:[14]

Thrust bending force
Thrust loads on the blades act to bend them forward.
Centrifugal twisting force
Acts to twist the blades to a low, or fine pitch angle.
Aerodynamic twisting force
As the centre of pressure of a propeller blade is forward of its centreline the blade is twisted towards a coarse pitch position.
Centrifugal force
The force felt by the blades acting to pull them away from the hub when turning.
Torque bending force
Air resistance acting against the blades, combined with inertial effects causes propeller blades to bend away from the direction of rotation.

Curved propeller blades

Since the 1940s, propellers and propfans with swept tips or curved "scimitar-shaped" blades have been studied for use in high-speed applications so as to delay the onset of shockwaves, in similar manner to wing sweepback, where the blade tips approach the speed of sound. The Airbus A400M turboprop transport aircraft is expected to provide the first production example: note that it is not a propfan because the propellers are not mounted directly to the engine shaft but are driven through reduction gearing.

Propeller control

Variable pitch

Cut-away view of a Hamilton Standard propeller. This type of propeller was used on many American fighters, bombers and transport aircraft of World War II

The purpose of varying pitch angle with a variable-pitch propeller is to maintain an optimal angle of attack (maximum lift to drag ratio) on the propeller blades as aircraft speed varies. Early pitch control settings were pilot operated, either two-position or manually variable. Following World War I, automatic propellers were developed to maintain an optimum angle of attack. This was done by balancing the centripetal twisting moment on the blades and a set of counterweights against a spring and the aerodynamic forces on the blade. Automatic props had the advantage of being simple, lightweight, and requiring no external control, but a particular propeller's performance was difficult to match with that of the aircraft's powerplant. An improvement on the automatic type was the constant-speed propeller. Constant-speed propellers allow the pilot to select a rotational speed for maximum engine power or maximum efficiency, and a propeller governor acts as a closed-loop controller to vary propeller pitch angle as required to maintain the selected engine speed. In most aircraft this system is hydraulic, with engine oil serving as the hydraulic fluid. However, electrically controlled propellers were developed during World War II and saw extensive use on military aircraft, and have recently seen a revival in use on homebuilt aircraft.


Feathered propeller on the outboard TP400 turboprop of an Airbus A400M

On some variable-pitch propellers, the blades can be rotated parallel to the airflow to reduce drag in case of an engine failure. This uses the term feathering, borrowed from rowing. On single-engined aircraft, whether a powered glider or turbine-powered aircraft, the effect is to increase the gliding distance. On a multi-engine aircraft, feathering the propeller on a failed engine helps the aircraft to maintain altitude with the reduced power from the remaining engines.

Most feathering systems for reciprocating engines sense a drop in oil pressure and move the blades toward the feather position, and require the pilot to pull the propeller control back to disengage the high-pitch stop pins before the engine reaches idle RPM. Turboprop control systems usually utilize a negative torque sensor in the reduction gearbox which moves the blades toward feather when the engine is no longer providing power to the propeller. Depending on design, the pilot may have to push a button to override the high-pitch stops and complete the feathering process, or the feathering process may be totally automatic.

Reverse pitch

In some aircraft, such as the C-130 Hercules, the pilot can manually override the constant-speed mechanism to reverse the blade pitch angle, and thus the thrust of the engine (although the rotation of the engine itself does not reverse). This is used to help slow the plane down after landing in order to save wear on the brakes and tires, but in some cases also allows the aircraft to back up on its own - this is particularly useful for getting floatplanes out of confined docks. See also Thrust reversal.

Contra-rotating propellers

Contra-rotating propellers of a modified North American P-51 Mustang fitted with a Rolls-Royce Griffon engine.

Contra-rotating propellers use a second propeller rotating in the opposite direction immediately 'downstream' of the main propeller so as to recover energy lost in the swirling motion of the air in the propeller slipstream. Contra-rotation also increases power without increasing propeller diameter and provides a counter to the torque effect of high-power piston engine as well as the gyroscopic precession effects, and of the slipstream swirl. However, on small aircraft the added cost, complexity, weight and noise of the system rarely make it worthwhile.[15]

Counter-rotating propellers

Counter-rotating propellers are sometimes used on twin-, and other multi-engine, propeller-driven aircraft. The propellers of these wing-mounted engines turn in opposite directions from those on the other wing. Generally, the propellers on both engines of most conventional twin-engined aircraft spin clockwise (as viewed from the rear of the aircraft). Counter-rotating propellers generally spin clockwise on the left engine, and counter-clockwise on the right. The advantage of counter-rotating propellers is to balance out the effects of torque and p-factor, eliminating the problem of the critical engine. These are sometimes referred to as "handed" propellers since there are left hand and right hand versions of each prop.

Aircraft fans

Main articles: Propfan and Ducted fan

A fan is a propeller with a large number of blades. A fan therefore produces a lot of thrust for a given diameter but the closeness of the blades means that each strongly affects the flow around the others. If the flow is supersonic, this interference can be beneficial if the flow can be compressed through a series of shock waves rather than one. By placing the fan within a shaped duct, specific flow patterns can be created depending on flight speed and engine performance. As air enters the duct, its speed is reduced while its pressure and temperature increase. If the aircraft is at a high subsonic speed this creates two advantages: the air enters the fan at a lower Mach speed; and the higher temperature increases the local speed of sound. While there is a loss in efficiency as the fan is drawing on a smaller area of the free stream and so using less air, this is balanced by the ducted fan retaining efficiency at higher speeds where conventional propeller efficiency would be poor. A ducted fan or propeller also has certain benefits at lower speeds but the duct needs to be shaped in a different manner than one for higher speed flight. More air is taken in and the fan therefore operates at an efficiency equivalent to a larger un-ducted propeller. Noise is also reduced by the ducting and should a blade become detached the duct would help contain the damage. However the duct adds weight, cost, complexity and (to a certain degree) drag.

See also


  1. "Airscrew." Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved: 23 March 2011.
  2. Rumerman, Judy. "Early Helicopter Technology." Centennial of Flight Commission, 2003. Retrieved September 2015.
  3. Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge. Oklahoma City: U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. 2008. pp. 2–7 ie page 7 of Chapter 02: Aircraft Structure. FAA-8083-25A. 
  4. Ash, Robert L., Colin P. Britcher and Kenneth W. Hyde. "Wrights: How two brothers from Dayton added a new twist to airplane propulsion." Mechanical Engineering: 100 years of Flight, 3 July 2007.
  5. Rogers, David F. "Propeller Efficiency", page 3. NAR, 2010. Accessed: 28 August 2014.
  6. Ayres, Leonard P. (1919). The War with Germany (Second ed.). Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office. p. 92. 
  7. Henri R. Palmer Jr. The birdcage parasol, Flying Magazine oct. 1960 p51
  8. Physical propeller theory was at the time restricted to the Rankine-Froude theory, also known as the "actuator disc theory" or the axial momentum theory. That theory however adequate, does not give indication on the shape that should be given to the propeller. This would be solved regarding that theory only in the 1920s by complement of the Betz law (Goldstein, Betz, Prandtl and Lanchester): William Graebel, Engineering Fluid Mechanics, p144 , ISBN 1-560-32711-1, John Carlton, Marine Propellers and Propulsion, p169, ISBN 978-0-08-097123-0. The Wright brothers however were equating the propeller blade to an airfoil instead, which for they previously had already determined the aerodynamic behavioural patterns: John David Anderson, A History of Aerodynamics: And Its Impact on Flying Machines, ISBN 0-521-66955-3
  9. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1910 edition, volume 30 (1922 supplement), in the article "Aeronautics" page 20. "Airscrews have been described as 'tractors' and 'propellers', according as the airscrew shaft is placed in tension or in compression by the thrust, and corresponding aeroplanes are usually called by the same names. The first biplanes, those of the Wrights and the Farmans, were of the propeller type, colloquially 'pushers'; almost all monoplanes were 'tractors.'
  10. Propeller Aircraft Performance and The Bootstrap Approach
  11. Kundu, Ajoy (2010). Aircraft Design. Cambridge University Press. p. 346. ISBN 0521885167. 
  12. Prof. Z. S. Spakovszky. " Efficiency" MIT turbines, 2002. Thermodynamics and Propulsion, main page
  13. Pushing The Envelope With Test Pilot Herb Fisher. Planes and Pilots of World War 2, 2000. Retrieved: 22 July 2011.
  14. Airframe and Powerplant Mechanics Powerplant Handbook (PDF). Federal Aviation Administration. p. 327. 
  15. The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. 2004. 

External links