Airplane Propellers - Why Are Propellers Different?

Harzell 3 Bladed Prop Airplane propellers are a type of fan which transmits power by converting rotational motion into thrust. It consists of one or more blades about a central shaft and operates like a rotating screw or wing. A pressure difference between the forward and rear surfaces of the airfoil-shaped blade is produced and air is accelerated behind the blade.

Propeller dynamics can be modeled by both Bernoulli's principle and Newton's third law.

Airplane 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. Control systems are required to counter the need for accurate matching of pitch to flight speed and engine speed.

Harzell 4 Bladed Prop

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 airplane propellers as the aircraft speed varies.

Early pitch control settings were pilot operated, either two-position or manually variable.

Following World War II, automatic airplane 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 RPM commanded by the pilot.

In most aircraft this system is hydraulic, with engine oil serving as the hydraulic fluid. However, electrically controlled airplane 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.

Airplane Propellers

On some variable-pitch propellers, the blades can be rotated parallel to the airflow to reduce drag and increase gliding distance in case of an engine failure. This is called feathering.

Feathering airplane propellers were developed for military fighter aircraft prior to World War II, as a fighter is more likely to experience an engine failure due to the inherent danger of combat. Feathering propellers are used on multi-engine aircraft and are meant to reduce drag on a failed engine. When used on powered gliders and single-engine turbine powered aircraft they increase the gliding distance.

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 prop control back to disengage the high-pitch stop pins before the engine reaches idle RPM.

Turbopropeller 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.

In some aircraft (e.g., the CC-130 Hercules), the pilot can manually override the constant speed mechanism to reverse the blade pitch angle, and thus the thrust of the engine. 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.

Airplane Propellers

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 lead to the need for a propeller diameter which is unusable.

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.

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.

History Of Airplanes

The propeller is usually attached to the crankshaft of the engine, either directly or through a gearbox. Light aircraft sometimes forego the weight, complexity and cost of gearing but on some larger aircraft and some turboprop aircraft it is essential.

A propeller's performance suffers as the blade speed exceeds the speed of sound.

As the relative air speed at the blade is rotation speed plus axial speed, a propeller blade tip will reach sonic speed sometime before the rest of the aircraft.

When a blade tip becomes supersonic, drag and torque resistance increase suddenly and shock waves form creating a sharp increase in noise. Aircraft with conventional airplane propellers, therefore, do not usually fly faster than Mach 0.6. There are certain propeller-driven aircraft, usually military, which do operate at Mach 0.8 or higher, although there is considerable fall off in efficiency.

Mccauley 3 Bladed Prop

There have been efforts to develop propellers for aircraft at high subsonic speeds. 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).

If you wish to read more about propellers then please visit Wikipedia, which is where I got my information from.

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