Controllable Pitch Propeller - Transition to Complex Airplanes

Fixed-pitch propellers are designed for best efficiency at one speed of rotation and forward speed. This type of propeller provides suitable performance in a narrow range of airspeeds; however, efficiency would suffer considerably outside this range. To provide high-propeller efficiency through a wide range of operation, the propeller blade angle must be controllable. The most effective way of controlling the propeller blade angle is by means of a constant-speed governing system.

Constant-Speed Propeller

The constant-speed propeller keeps the blade angle adjusted for maximum efficiency for most conditions of flight. The pilot controls the engine revolutions per minute (rpm) indirectly by means of a propeller control in the flightdeck, which is connected to a propeller governor. For maximum takeoff power, the propeller control is moved all the way forward to the low pitch/high rpm position, and the throttle is moved forward to the maximum allowable manifold pressure position. [Figure 1] To reduce power for climb or cruise, manifold pressure is reduced to the desired value with the throttle, and the engine rpm is reduced by moving the propeller control back toward the high pitch/low rpm position until the desired rpm is observed on the tachometer. Pulling back on the propeller control causes the propeller blades to move to a higher angle. Increasing the propeller blade angle (of attack) results in an increase in the resistance of the air. This puts a load on the engine so it slows down. In other words, the resistance of the air at the higher blade angle is greater than the torque, or power, delivered to the propeller by the engine, so it slows down to a point where forces are in balance.

Figure 1. Controllable pitch propeller pitch angles

When an aircraft engine is running at constant speed, the torque (power) exerted by the engine at the propeller shaft must equal the opposing load provided by the resistance of the air. The rpm is controlled by regulating the torque absorbed by the propeller—in other words by increasing or decreasing the resistance offered by the air to the propeller. This is accomplished with a constant-speed propeller by means of a governor. The governor, in most cases, is geared to the engine crankshaft and thus is sensitive to changes in engine rpm.

When an airplane is nosed up into a climb from level flight, the engine tends to slow down. Since the governor is sensitive to small changes in engine rpm, it decreases the blade angle just enough to keep the engine speed from falling off. If the airplane is nosed down into a dive, the governor increases the blade angle enough to prevent the engine from over-speeding. This allows the engine to maintain a constant rpm thereby maintaining the power output. Changes in airspeed and power can be obtained by changing rpm at a constant manifold pressure; by changing the manifold pressure at a constant rpm; or by changing both rpm and manifold pressure. The constant-speed propeller makes it possible to obtain an infinite number of power settings.

Takeoff, Climb, and Cruise

During takeoff, when the forward motion of the airplane is at low speeds and when maximum power and thrust are required, the constant-speed propeller sets up a low propeller blade angle (pitch). The low blade angle keeps the AOA, with respect to the relative wind, small and efficient at the low speed. [Figure 2]

Figure 2. Propeller blade angle

At the same time, it allows the propeller to handle a smaller mass of air per revolution. This light load allows the engine to turn at maximum rpm and develop maximum power. Although the mass of air per revolution is small, the number of rpm is high. Thrust is maximum at the beginning of the takeoff and then decreases as the airplane gains speed and the airplane drag increases. Due to the high slipstream velocity during takeoff, the effective lift of the wing behind the propeller(s) is increased.

As the airspeed increases after lift-off, the load on the engine is lightened because of the small blade angle. The governor senses this and increases the blade angle slightly. Again, the higher blade angle, with the higher speeds, keeps the AOA with respect to the relative wind small and efficient.

For climb after takeoff, the power output of the engine is reduced to climb power by decreasing the manifold pressure and lowering rpm by increasing the blade angle. At the higher (climb) airspeed and the higher blade angle, the propeller is handling a greater mass of air per second at a lower slipstream velocity. This reduction in power is offset by the increase in propeller efficiency. The AOA is again kept small by the increase in the blade angle with an increase in airspeed.

At cruising altitude, when the airplane is in level flight, less power is required to produce a higher airspeed than is used in climb. Consequently, engine power is again reduced by lowering the manifold pressure and increasing the blade angle (to decrease rpm). The higher airspeed and higher blade angle enable the propeller to handle a still greater mass of air per second at still smaller slipstream velocity. At normal cruising speeds, propeller efficiency is at or near maximum efficiency.

Blade Angle Control

Once the rpm settings for the propeller are selected, the propeller governor automatically adjusts the blade angle to maintain the selected rpm. It does this by using oil pressure. Generally, the oil pressure used for pitch change comes directly from the engine lubricating system. When a governor is employed, engine oil is used and the oil pressure is usually boosted by a pump that is integrated with the governor. The higher pressure provides a quicker blade angle change. The rpm at which the propeller is to operate is adjusted in the governor head. The pilot changes this setting by changing the position of the governor rack through the flightdeck propeller control.

On some constant-speed propellers, changes in pitch are obtained by the use of an inherent centrifugal twisting moment of the blades that tends to flatten the blades toward low pitch and oil pressure applied to a hydraulic piston connected to the propeller blades which moves them toward high pitch. Another type of constant-speed propeller uses counterweights attached to the blade shanks in the hub. Governor oil pressure and the blade twisting moment move the blades toward the low pitch position, and centrifugal force acting on the counterweights moves them (and the blades) toward the high pitch position. In the first case above, governor oil pressure moves the blades towards high pitch and in the second case, governor oil pressure and the blade twisting moment move the blades toward low pitch. A loss of governor oil pressure, therefore, affects each differently.

Governing Range

The blade angle range for constant-speed propellers varies from about 111⁄2° to 40°. The higher the speed of the airplane, the greater the blade angle range. [Figure 3]

Aircraft Type
Design Speed (mph)
Blade Angle Range
Fixed gear
Turbo retractable
Turbine retractable
Transport retractable
Figure 3. Blade angle range (values are approximate)

The range of possible blade angles is termed the propeller’s governing range. The governing range is defined by the limits of the propeller blades travel between high and low blade angle pitch stops. As long as the propeller blade angle is within the governing range and not against either pitch stop, a constant engine rpm is maintained. However, once the propeller blade reaches its pitch-stop limit, the engine rpm increases or decreases with changes in airspeed and propeller load similar to a fixed-pitch propeller. For example, once a specific rpm is selected, if the airspeed decreases enough, the propeller blades reduce pitch in an attempt to maintain the selected rpm until they contact their low pitch stops. From that point, any further reduction in airspeed causes the engine rpm to decrease. Conversely, if the airspeed increases, the propeller blade angle increases until the high pitch stop is reached. The engine rpm then begins to increase.

Constant-Speed Propeller Operation

The engine is started with the propeller control in the low pitch/high rpm position. This position reduces the load or drag of the propeller and the result is easier starting and warm-up of the engine. During warm-up, the propeller blade changing mechanism is operated slowly and smoothly through a full cycle. This is done by moving the propeller control (with the manifold pressure set to produce about 1,600 rpm) to the high pitch/low rpm position, allowing the rpm to stabilize, and then moving the propeller control back to the low pitch takeoff position. This is done for two reasons: to determine whether the system is operating correctly and to circulate fresh warm oil through the propeller governor system. Remember the oil has been trapped in the propeller cylinder since the last time the engine was shut down. There is a certain amount of leakage from the propeller cylinder, and the oil tends to congeal, especially if the outside air temperature is low. Consequently, if the propeller is not exercised before takeoff, there is a possibility that the engine may overspeed on takeoff.

An airplane equipped with a constant-speed propeller has better takeoff performance than a similarly powered airplane equipped with a fixed-pitch propeller. This is because with a constant-speed propeller, an airplane can develop its maximum rated horsepower (red line on the tachometer) while motionless. An airplane with a fixed-pitch propeller, on the other hand, must accelerate down the runway to increase airspeed and aerodynamically unload the propeller so that rpm and horsepower can steadily build up to their maximum. With a constant-speed propeller, the tachometer reading should come up to within 40 rpm of the red line as soon as full power is applied and remain there for the entire takeoff.

Excessive manifold pressure raises the cylinder combustion pressures, resulting in high stresses within the engine. Excessive pressure also produces high-engine temperatures. A combination of high manifold pressure and low rpm can induce damaging detonation. In order to avoid these situations, the following sequence should be followed when making power changes.
  • When increasing power, increase the rpm first and then the manifold pressure
  • When decreasing power, decrease the manifold pressure first and then decrease the rpm

The cruise power charts in the AFM/POH should be consulted when selecting cruise power settings. Whatever the combinations of rpm and manifold pressure listed in these charts—they have been flight tested and approved by engineers for the respective airframe and engine manufacturer. Therefore, if there are power settings, such as 2,100 rpm and 24 inches manifold pressure in the power chart, they are approved for use. With a constant-speed propeller, a power descent can be made without over-speeding the engine. The system compensates for the increased airspeed of the descent by increasing the propeller blade angles. If the descent is too rapid or is being made from a high altitude, the maximum blade angle limit of the blades is not sufficient to hold the rpm constant. When this occurs, the rpm is responsive to any change in throttle setting.

Although the governor responds quickly to any change in throttle setting, a sudden and large increase in the throttle setting causes a momentary over-speeding of the engine until the blades become adjusted to absorb the increased power. If an emergency demanding full power should arise during approach, the sudden advancing of the throttle causes momentary over-speeding of the engine beyond the rpm for which the governor is adjusted.

Some important points to remember concerning constant-speed propeller operation are:
  • The red line on the tachometer not only indicates maximum allowable rpm; it also indicates the rpm required to obtain the engine’s rated horsepower. 
  • A momentary propeller overspeed may occur when the throttle is advanced rapidly for takeoff. This is usually not serious if the rated rpm is not exceeded by 10 percent for more than 3 seconds. 
  • The green arc on the tachometer indicates the normal operating range. When developing power in this range, the engine drives the propeller. Below the green arc, however, it is usually the windmilling propeller that powers the engine. Prolonged operation below the green arc can be detrimental to the engine. 
  • On takeoffs from low elevation airports, the manifold pressure in inches of mercury may exceed the rpm. This is normal in most cases, but the pilot should always consult the AFM/POH for limitations. 
  • All power changes should be made smoothly and slowly to avoid over-boosting and/or over-speeding.