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What Is A Constant Speed Propeller?

Part 1: The Basics

by C AR LV A LE RI on OCTOBER 11, 2011

A listener to The Stuck MicAvast recently asked how a

constant speed propeller works. Before we answer this
question we must understand why airplanes have constant
speed propellers and the basics
of how a propeller works.
Why The Constant Speed
The propeller converts
rotational power from the
engine into thrust. The
rotational power is called
torque. To better understand
torque, imagine your twisting a
lid off a can of peanut butter. The muscles in your hand
and arm converted into power to turn the peanut butter
cap is called torque.
Some cans of peanut butter are very hard to open so we
either need to use more power by exerting ourselves or
handing the jar of peanut butter to someone who is
stronger. Another way we can get the can open is by using
our strength more efficiently by using a tool that converts
the power in our hands and arms into greater torque. You
may have seen such devices at a kitchen store or on late
night TV selling for $9.99. I know what your thinking.
When am I going to say But wait theres more! Now that

we have our jar of peanut butter open lets see how this
relates to our propeller.
Similar to the tool helping us open the jar of peanut butter
the constant speed prop is a device which allows us to
efficiently convert power from the engine into thrust. To
understand how the constant speed prop works lets first
review how a fixed pitched propeller works.
Propeller Basics
Before powered flight, pilots were flying gliders and some
of the most successful were flown by the Wright Brothers.
The challenge in keeping these early air machines aloft was
in how they could move the plane through the air under its
own power thus producing enough air speed over the
wings to stay aloft.
Many early attempts at powered flight failed but a
common theme amongst the earliest flying machines was a
device called a propeller. This device had two small wings
attached to a rotating hub on the front of the flying
machine rotating vertically, moving air just as a fan moves
air. A fan must be attached to a base or it will fall forward
since the air being pulled through the fan produces a
forward force called thrust.
The Wright Brothers where successful in placing an engine
on an aircraft and converting the power to turn the
propeller and produce enough thrust to cause the aircraft
to take off under its own power. We have come a long way
since those early days but the basics of propeller operation
are the same.

A propeller blade is designed similar to a wing but it must

work while rotating about a center hub. Similar to a wing
the propellers cord is an imaginary line drawn from the
center of the leading edge to the rear of the propeller. The
blade angle is a measurement of the distance between
the propeller cord and the plane of rotation, which is fixed
in one position on most airplanes. When we speak about
propellers though we dont talk about the blade angle we
talk about the pitch of the propeller.
Propeller pitch is the distance in inches which the
propeller would screw through the air in one rotation.
When changing the blade angle we change the pitch of the
propeller and use the term controllable pitch propeller.
Therefore when we change the blade angle we are
changing the distance the propeller would screw through
the air and are controlling the pitch of the propeller.
Therefore we call them controllable pitch propellers. Note:
if you are seeking your flight instructor rating it is a good
idea to understand the different terms pitch and blade

Why Use A Constant Speed Propeller

Most single engine aircraft are equipped with a fixed pitch
propeller which is efficient at a specific forward speed.
Normally the propeller design of a fixed pitch propeller is a
compromise of efficiency between cruise and climb. The
reason a propeller is most efficient at a specific speed
through the air is due to propeller slip.

Propeller slip is the difference between the theoretical

pitch, geometric pitch, and the actual pitch, effective pitch,
of the propeller. An efficient propeller is one which has the
least amount of slippage and therefore converts more
engine horsepower into thrust. A constant speed propeller
keeps the propeller pitch adjusted for maximum efficiency
for most conditions of flight.
During takeoff we need the most power and thrust.
Remember we are not moving through the air very fast
and a low blade angle does a few things. First, it keeps the
Angle of Attack small and efficient with respect to the
relative wind. Second the engine turns at a higher RPM
and therefore converts the most fuel into heat energy for a

given time. Third, the low pitch causes a smaller mass of

air to be handled by the propeller but the high RPM and
low speed causes maximum thrust.
As we liftoff and climb, the speed of the airplane increases
and automatically changes to a higher angle, again greater
pitch. The change in the blade angle increases the air
handled in one revolution. The new blade angle will keep
the RPM constant during the initial climb.

After the initial climb and at a safe altitude the pilot will
select a power setting to initiate the remainder of the climb
to altitude. This is done by first reducing the power by
decreasing the manifold pressure.

Next we must increase the blade angle and lower the RPM.
A good rule of thumb is to make sure the manifold
pressure is less than or equal to the propeller RPM but of
course you will reference your engine operating manual to
reference the proper setting.
As you climb to altitude in a normally aspirated, non turbo
charged engine, you will need to constantly increase your
manifold pressure as you climb since the air is less dense
as you climb. If you climb to higher altitudes the throttle
will eventually need to be increased to maximum. After the
throttle is at maximum power setting there is not much
you can do, except buy a turbo charged engine.
Leveling off at cruise altitude let the airplane accelerate to
the desired airspeed. Since you will no longer need the
excess power to accelerate, reduce the power. Reduce by
first reducing the manifold pressure and then increase the
blade angle to decrease the rpm.

After everything has stabilized in cruise and before you

complete your cruise checklist this would be a good time to
verify the proper power setting and lean the engine.
During your preflight you estimated a specific true
airspeed, TAS, and a power and fuel burn. Most airplanes
have a quick reference chart available to verify the cruise
setting. If you dont have one I think it is a good idea to
make one and laminate it for quick reference.
During a descent you must reduce the power and point the
nose of the plane downward. This will normally increase
the airspeed which the propeller will automatically adjust
for and increase the blade angle.
In the next part in the series on how a constant speed
propeller works we will be talking about the mechanics of
how the propeller works. But for now know that there are
mechanical stops that prevent the blade angle to be
increased beyond a maximum setting which would occur
during high velocity descent. Therefore even with the
power set at a minimum you will eventually see an
increase in rpm as you increase the airspeed.
As you slow for landing the pitch of the blade will decrease
until reaching a mechanical stop. Before you land you will
need to place the propeller control in the low pitch and
high rpm setting because you might need the power for a
go around. If we never did go arounds you could leave the
prop control alone until after landing, but we all know this
is not a good idea because we all plan to go around on
every landing. Right?

With that said as you become more experienced in flying a

constant speed prop you will notice that you will be able to
set the RPM during cruise and have the quiet sound of a
lower rpm setting all the way down to touch down. As you
slow the aircraft the angle of the propeller blade decreases
until it reaches its stop. To add to passenger comfort and
to be a smoother pilot you should get to know what
airspeed the propeller will contact the mechanical stop
while the throttle is at a low power setting. If you advance
the prop lever to max RPM you will not hear any change in
RPM which means you are at the mechanical stop. Do this
and you and your passengers will appreciate the lack of
noise created by the change from a ham fisted pilot.
Now that you know how a constant speed propeller works
from an operators perspective lets see how the mechanical
device of moving the propeller works. We will look at both
constant speed propellers and full feathering propellers
used on twin engines. Do you know why we would want a
full feathering propeller on a twin and not on a single
engine aircraft? Stay tuned for Part 2 The Mechanics of
The Constant Speed Propeller.
Safe Flying!