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I recently had a discussion with an aviation expert, who works as a Flight Instructor, about constant speed propellers - variable pitch propellers - on light piston aircraft.

I have always known that these kind of propellers are capable of changing their pitch angle in flight in order to keep propeller blades at their optimum angle of attack across a wide speed range, while maintaining constant RPM. Therefore, they are very efficient over a wider airspeed range compared to fixed pitch propellers. A change in TAS in flight, for example, would lead to a change in pitch, in order to restore the optimum angle of attack of the propeller blades.

To my surprise, the instructor told me that what I knew about variable pitch propellers was not true: he explained to me that a change in TAS during the flight would lead to a change in the angle of attack of the blades, but that doesn’t mean that the resulting pitch change would lead to the optimum angle of attack.

His answer really surprised me, so I am now wondering what is the purpose of variable pitch propellers then. I understand that there may be a point where the PCU and CSU won’t be able to adjust the pitch to the most optimum angle of attack, but I thought that during normal operating speeds the purpose of this kind of propellers was to provide the blades with the most efficient angle of attack. Am I wrong?

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    $\begingroup$ Optimal angle for what property? $\endgroup$ – BowlOfRed Dec 6 '18 at 18:20
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What you know about variable pitch propellers is generally correct. If you make a slight change, your flight instructor would not have had any reason to object: They keep propeller blades near their optimum angle of attack across a wide speed range.

As the distance from the hub increases, the blade section gains circumferential speed while being in the same forward speed as all other sections. Therefore, the twist of the propeller blade should change linearly from the hub to the tip. If you twist the full blade at its root, you add a constant change to each cross section, so at high speed the root of the blade sees too high an angle of attack and the tip has too little angle of attack. Normally, the section at approximately 75% of propeller span is kept at its ideal angle for the best overall compromise. That is good enough for practical use.

Ideally, the propeller would spin faster with increasing flight speed, but that would require a gearbox and switching gears with the limited speed ranges of combustion engines, would deliver little thrust at the beginning of the take-off run and at high speed you would run into compressibility problems at the tips much sooner - practical high speed propellers spin more slowly than typical low-speed propellers.

If you look at the efficiency chart of a three-bladed variable pitch propeller below, you will see that efficiency peaks for one speed (given as an advance ratio in the plot below) and one pitch angle. This is when the full blade is flown at the optimum angle of attack for each section. This optimum would shift to higher speeds for less twist and lower speeds for more twist. Operating the propeller away from its design point incurs small losses since not all of the blade is exactly at its optimum angle of attack, but if you compare the overall efficiency with that of a single pitch setting, the advantage of variable pitch becomes obvious.

Efficiency chart of a variable pitch propeller

Efficiency chart of a variable pitch propeller. Source: McCormick B.W. Aerodynamics, Aeronautics &Flight Mechanics. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1979.

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The purpose of a variable pitch prop is to allow is to allow the pilot to select where on the engine's power curve (s)he wishes to operate the engine. When full power is needed, as for takeoff and initial climb, the throttle is fully opened and the pitch set as shallow as required so as to allow the engine to spool up to the peak of its rated power curve. For economy cruise, the prop pitch is deepened to load the engine down to a lower rotating speed at which it produces less power and consumes less fuel.

In this regard, you can consider the pitch control on the prop as the analogue of the transmission in your car: First gear = fine pitch, top gear/overdrive = coarse pitch.

Note here than this means a constant speed prop and engine combo to be the analogue of the cruise control system in your car.

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There are two kind of propeller:

  • Fix pitch propeller, which the pitch or we more familiar to say as the angle of attack (AoA) always same all the time, engine RPM is adjusted to meet requirement.
  • Constant speed propeller, which the engine RPM is variable due to the change in the pitch.

The first propeller is the old one, and cheaper. No chance to change the pitch. The pitch is normally low, around 5 degree (depend on the producer's design). The latter one is more expensive and more suitable to be used in current flight. A propeller with low pitch is suitable for take off, while high pitch is more suitable during cruise. "High" here is depend on the producer, but will be around 15 degree, the maximum limit before it get stall, which mean the power from the engine is no more effective to move the airplane forward.

Low pitch with the fix pitch propeller we can think like a car with low gear which is used to move a car from stop and then climbing a hiking road. And after some distance, meet a flat and smooth toll road. During climb, gear 1 (low pitch) is more suitable, but not while cruising in the flat and smooth toll road. During cruising in that toll road is more suitable using gear 5 (high pitch). The same thing is also apply to airplane. During take off, airplane requires low pitch but high RPM. That to allow the propeller to "bite" the air small by small, and slowly pull the airplane move forward, then take off, until it meet the cruise level. After cruise level (which the airplane will force to be high speed), the propeller is adjusted with the suitable pitch to meet the suitable RPM, which is lower RPM but higher TAS or at least same TAS. Lower RPM mean lower piston stroke per minute. Lower piston's stroke per minute mean lower gas consumption. So, the instructor word with "optimum" is mean "best gas consumption due to the lower RPM". Lower RPM will reduce the engine temperature, and finally will lengthen the engine life cycle.

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