The propeller is a rotating airfoil, subject to induced drag, stalls, and other aerodynamic principles that apply to any airfoil. It provides the necessary thrust to pull, or in some cases push, the aircraft through the air. The engine power is used to rotate the propeller, which in turn generates thrust very similar to the manner in which a wing produces lift. The amount of thrust produced depends on the shape of the airfoil, the angle of attack (AOA) of the propeller blade, and the revolutions per minute (rpm) of the engine. The propeller itself is twisted so the blade angle changes from hub to tip. The greatest angle of incidence, or the highest pitch, is at the hub while the smallest angle of incidence or smallest pitch is at the tip. [Figure 1]

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Figure 1. Changes in propeller blade angle from hub to tip
The reason for the twist is to produce uniform lift from the hub to the tip. As the blade rotates, there is a difference in the actual speed of the various portions of the blade. The tip of the blade travels faster than the part near the hub, because the tip travels a greater distance than the hub in the same length of time. [Figure 2]
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Figure 2. Relationship of travel distance and speed of various portions of propeller blade
Changing the angle of incidence (pitch) from the hub to the tip to correspond with the speed produces uniform lift throughout the length of the blade. A propeller blade designed with the same angle of incidence throughout its entire length would be inefficient because as airspeed increases in flight, the portion near the hub would have a negative AOA while the blade tip would be stalled. Small aircraft are equipped with either one of two types of propellers: fixed-pitch or adjustable-pitch.

Fixed-Pitch Propeller

A propeller with fixed blade angles is a fixed-pitch propeller. The pitch of this propeller is set by the manufacturer and cannot be changed. Since a fixed-pitch propeller achieves the best efficiency only at a given combination of airspeed and rpm, the pitch setting is ideal for neither cruise nor climb. Thus, the aircraft suffers a bit in each performance category. The fixed-pitch propeller is used when low weight, simplicity, and low cost are needed.
There are two types of fixed-pitch propellers: climb and cruise. Whether the airplane has a climb or cruise propeller installed depends upon its intended use. The climb propeller has a lower pitch, therefore less drag. Less drag results in higher rpm and more horsepower capability, which increases performance during takeoffs and climbs but decreases performance during cruising flight.
The cruise propeller has a higher pitch, therefore more drag. More drag results in lower rpm and less horsepower capability, which decreases performance during takeoffs and climbs but increases efficiency during cruising flight.
The propeller is usually mounted on a shaft, which may be an extension of the engine crankshaft. In this case, the rpm of the propeller would be the same as the crankshaft rpm. On some engines, the propeller is mounted on a shaft geared to the engine crankshaft. In this type, the rpm of the propeller is different than that of the engine.
In a fixed-pitch propeller, the tachometer is the indicator of engine power. [Figure 3] A tachometer is calibrated in hundreds of rpm and gives a direct indication of the engine and propeller rpm. The instrument is color coded with a green arc denoting the maximum continuous operating rpm. Some tachometers have additional markings to reflect engine and/or propeller limitations. The manufacturer’s recommendations should be used as a reference to clarify any misunderstanding of tachometer markings.
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Figure 3. Engine rpm is indicated on the tachometer
The rpm is regulated by the throttle, which controls the fuel-air flow to the engine. At a given altitude, the higher the tachometer reading, the higher the power output of the engine.
When operating altitude increases, the tachometer may not show correct power output of the engine. For example, 2,300 rpm at 5,000 feet produces less horsepower than 2,300 rpm at sea level because power output depends on air density. Air density decreases as altitude increases and a decrease in air density (higher density altitude) decreases the power output of the engine. As altitude changes, the position of the throttle must be changed to maintain the same rpm. As altitude is increased, the throttle must be opened further to indicate the same rpm as at a lower altitude.

Adjustable-Pitch Propeller

The adjustable-pitch propeller was the forerunner of the constant-speed propeller. It is a propeller with blades whose pitch can be adjusted on the ground with the engine not running, but which cannot be adjusted in flight. It is also referred to as a ground adjustable propeller. By the 1930s, pioneer aviation inventors were laying the ground work for automatic pitch-change mechanisms, which is why the term sometimes refers to modern constant-speed propellers that are adjustable in flight.
The first adjustable-pitch propeller systems provided only two pitch settings: low and high. Today, most adjustable-pitch propeller systems are capable of a range of pitch settings.
A constant-speed propeller is a controllable-pitch propeller whose pitch is automatically varied in flight by a governor maintaining constant rpm despite varying air loads. It is the most common type of adjustable-pitch propeller. The main advantage of a constant-speed propeller is that it converts a high percentage of brake horsepower (BHP) into thrust horsepower (THP) over a wide range of rpm and airspeed combinations. A constant-speed propeller is more efficient than other propellers because it allows selection of the most efficient engine rpm for the given conditions.
An aircraft with a constant-speed propeller has two controls: the throttle and the propeller control. The throttle controls power output, and the propeller control regulates engine rpm. This regulates propeller rpm, which is registered on the tachometer.
Once a specific rpm is selected, a governor automatically adjusts the propeller blade angle as necessary to maintain the selected rpm. For example, after setting the desired rpm during cruising flight, an increase in airspeed or decrease in propeller load causes the propeller blade angle to increase as necessary to maintain the selected rpm. A reduction in airspeed or increase in propeller load causes the propeller blade angle to decrease.
The propeller’s constant-speed range, defined by the high and low pitch stops, is the range of possible blade angles for a constant-speed propeller. As long as the propeller blade angle is within the constant-speed range and not against either pitch stop, a constant engine rpm is maintained. If the propeller blades contact a pitch stop, the engine rpm will increase or decrease as appropriate, with changes in airspeed and propeller load. For example, once a specific rpm has been selected, if aircraft speed decreases enough to rotate the propeller blades until they contact the low pitch stop, any further decrease in airspeed will cause engine rpm to decrease the same way as if a fixed-pitch propeller were installed. The same holds true when an aircraft equipped with a constant-speed propeller accelerates to a faster airspeed. As the aircraft accelerates, the propeller blade angle increases to maintain the selected rpm until the high pitch stop is reached. Once this occurs, the blade angle cannot increase any further and engine rpm increases.
On aircraft equipped with a constant-speed propeller, power output is controlled by the throttle and indicated by a manifold pressure gauge. The gauge measures the absolute pressure of the fuel-air mixture inside the intake manifold and is more correctly a measure of manifold absolute pressure (MAP). At a constant rpm and altitude, the amount of power produced is directly related to the fuel-air mixture being delivered to the combustion chamber. As the throttle setting is increased, more fuel and air flows to the engine and MAP increases. When the engine is not running, the manifold pressure gauge indicates ambient air pressure (i.e., 29.92 inches mercury (29.92 “Hg)). When the engine is started, the manifold pressure indication decreases to a value less than ambient pressure (i.e., idle at 12 “Hg). Engine failure or power loss is indicated on the manifold gauge as an increase in manifold pressure to a value corresponding to the ambient air pressure at the altitude where the failure occurred. [Figure 4]
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Figure 4. Engine power output is indicated on the manifold pressure gauge
The manifold pressure gauge is color coded to indicate the engine’s operating range. The face of the manifold pressure gauge contains a green arc to show the normal operating range and a red radial line to indicate the upper limit of manifold pressure.
For any given rpm, there is a manifold pressure that should not be exceeded. If manifold pressure is excessive for a given rpm, the pressure within the cylinders could be exceeded, placing undue stress on the cylinders. If repeated too frequently, this stress can weaken the cylinder components and eventually cause engine failure.
A pilot can avoid conditions that overstress the cylinders by being constantly aware of the rpm, especially when increasing the manifold pressure. Consult the manufacturer’s recommendations for power settings of a particular engine to maintain the proper relationship between manifold pressure and rpm.
When both manifold pressure and rpm need to be changed, avoid engine overstress by making power adjustments in the proper order:
  • When power settings are being decreased, reduce manifold pressure before reducing rpm. If rpm is reduced before manifold pressure, manifold pressure automatically increases, possibly exceeding the manufacturer’s tolerances.
  • When power settings are being increased, reverse the order—increase rpm first, then manifold pressure.
  • To prevent damage to radial engines, minimize operating time at maximum rpm and manifold pressure, and avoid operation at maximum rpm and low manifold pressure.
The engine and/or airframe manufacturer’s recommendations should be followed to prevent severe wear, fatigue, and damage to high-performance reciprocating engines.

Propeller Overspeed in Piston Engine Aircraft

On March 17, 2010, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued Special Airworthiness Information Bulletin (SAIB) CE-10-21. The subject was Propellers/Propulsers; Propeller Overspeed in Piston Engine Aircraft to alert operators, pilots, and aircraft manufacturers of concerns for an optimum response to a propeller overspeed in piston engine aircraft with variable pitch propellers. Although a SAIB is not regulatory in nature, the FAA recommends that the information be read and taken into consideration for the safety of flight.
The document explains that a single-engine aircraft experienced a propeller overspeed during cruise flight at 7,000 feet. The pilot reported that the application of throttle resulted in a propeller overspeed with no appreciable thrust. The pilot attempted to glide to a nearby airport and established the “best glide” speed of 110 knots, as published in the Pilot’s Operating Handbook (POH), but was unable to reach the airport and was forced to conduct an off-field landing.
It was further explained that a determination was made that the propeller experienced a failure causing the blade pitch change mechanism to move to the low pitch stop position. This caused the propeller to operate as a fixed-pitch propeller such that it changes rpm with changes in power and airspeed. The low pitch setting allows for maximum power during takeoff but can result in a propeller overspeed at a higher airspeed.
A performance evaluation of the flight condition was performed for the particular aircraft model involved in this incident. This evaluation indicated that an airspeed lower than the best glide speed would have resulted in increased thrust enabling the pilot to maintain level flight. There are numerous variables in aircraft, engines, and propellers that affect aircraft performance. For some aircraft models, the published best glide speed may not be low enough to generate adequate thrust for a given propeller installation in this situation (propeller blades at low pitch stop position).
The operators of aircraft with variable pitch propellers should be aware that in certain instances of propeller overspeed, the airspeed necessary to maintain level flight may be different than the speed associated with engine-out best glide speed. The appropriate emergency procedures should be followed to mitigate the emergency situation in the event of a propeller overspeed; however, pilots should be aware that some reduction in airspeed may result in the ability for continued safe flight and landing. The determination of an airspeed that is more suitable than engine-out best glide speed should only be conducted at a safe altitude when the pilot has time to determine an alternative course of action other than landing immediately.