When I first heard the word air brakes it came to me that maybe the engine start rotating in the opposite direction for that, but since that's not possible, why can't we have an extra engine for air braking?

Did I just invent a new braking paradigm?

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    $\begingroup$ Here's an extreme example of an RC plane using variable pitch props to reverse thrust: youtube.com/watch?v=o_o_HT2ZaKQ the setup of the prop is something like this: hobbyking.com/hobbyking/store/…. As mentioned in the answers below, real planes can do this too but obviously not as extreme. $\endgroup$
    – slebetman
    Commented Jul 12, 2014 at 21:37
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    $\begingroup$ I would consider Google first before thinking you have just invented a paradigm shift. A simple search would have revealed that this has been around for many, many years. $\endgroup$
    – p1l0t
    Commented Jul 14, 2014 at 11:48
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    $\begingroup$ actually I get the idea from despicableMe, when Dr. Nefario goes to rescue the girls and he shoots his clamp on Vector's ship, then reverses his jet engine $\endgroup$
    – shabby
    Commented Nov 19, 2014 at 7:41
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    $\begingroup$ How do you cover the cases when you are short of fuel before landing, or the engine has failed? No engine = no brake capability. $\endgroup$
    – mins
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 18:17
  • $\begingroup$ @slebetman Interesting find on the Hobbyking prop, but the one in the video is a fixed pitch prop on a reversing electric motor. $\endgroup$
    – Pilothead
    Commented Apr 19, 2018 at 5:05

4 Answers 4


Planes with a variable pitch propeller can have a pitch range which twists the blades such that they provide reverse thrust. This started to become a common feature on high-performance airplanes in the 1930s.

Not all variable-pitch propellers can produce reverse thrust, however. The constant speed props on small propeller aircraft usually don't, because the energy of the plane after touchdown would be too small to justify the added complexity. On big airplanes which need short landing distances (the C-130, for example), they are a standard feature.

In 1936, Heinkel produced a sleek dive-bomber, complete with retractable landing gear and a reversible pitch propeller which could be used as a dive brake. The He-118 was test-flown by Ernst Udet, who did not pay attention at the briefing and went on to overspeed the airplane in a dive, destroying the prototype in the process. Thus, the clumsy, fixed-gear Ju-87 was chosen to be the "Stuka" and the He-118 would end as an inspiration for Japanese aircraft designers.

The Pilatus PC-6 Turbo Porter is a favorite with skydivers because it can put the propeller into reverse even in flight. This allows for spectacular descents and enables it to be safely back on the ground before the skydivers it dropped a moment before have landed.

As usual, Wikipedia covers the topic well, so here ist the link.

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    $\begingroup$ For completeness, reverse thrust on propeller aircraft is called "beta range", if anyone wants to google it. $\endgroup$
    – falstro
    Commented Jul 12, 2014 at 12:19
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    $\begingroup$ TBM 850 (and family) all come with beta range standard. It's a turboprop that can cruise at 320kts TAS, but has to be able to land in single engine GA performance numbers. So they fitted it with massive flaps and spoilerons to reduce the stall speed and reverse BETA (ß) range to help it stop quickly. $\endgroup$
    – hemp
    Commented Oct 12, 2016 at 18:19

Peter Kämpf's answer covers the systems that prop planes actually use for reverse thrust. The alternative presented in the question is a total non-starter for several reasons.

  • It's a complex and very heavy system.

  • Unless there was somewhere on the centreline you could mount this engine and prop, you'd need not just one of these things but two, for balance.

  • It causes drag while it isn't being used, which is all the time except immediately after landing.

  • For certification, aircraft have to be able to stop using just the wheel brakes, anyway, since the complexity of reverse thrust systems makes them likely to fail.

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    $\begingroup$ Exactly, the added benefit would be negligible (especially since many variable-pitch props and almost all jet engines are already capable of producing reverse thrust) while the costs (in design, manufacturing, maintenance, and fuel costs as well as in performance) would be enormous. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 20:38

Jet aircraft (especially large transports) are often equipped with thrust reversers. Not a requirement for landing, but takes some of the load and wear off the wheel brakes and tires. They have them because of the high landing speeds and large masses they have to bring to a stop in a limited amount of space.

Propeller aircraft don't fly as fast, so landing speeds are not as high; for the most part, braking requirements are easily met with wheel brakes.

Even if reverse thrust was beneficial, reversing the engine's rotation would be totally infeasible; engines are simply not designed to run either way round, and any system which would decouple the engine from the propeller (as would be needed if you wanted to implement a "reverse gear") would be a safety/reliability nightmare, not to mention heavy and expensive.

Engines are a significant part of the total weight and cost of an airplane. Carrying around an extra just for reverse thrust would be impractical for cost/weight reasons.

Many propeller-driven aircraft are equipped with variable-pitch propellers, including many light aircraft; in theory, any of them could have a "reverse" setting, but (as described in one of the other answers) you would only see it on larger aircraft designed for operation on short runways.

  • $\begingroup$ "Combat zone landing" procedures for military transport aircraft, which are often turboprops, calls for full reverse after landing to stop in as short a distance as possible (less than 3000ft for a loaded Hercules, for example). $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 16, 2014 at 11:39
  • $\begingroup$ The use of reversers on an aircraft with Carbon brakes can have an adverse effect on brake wear. Since autobrake systems target a deceleration rate, the use of reverse can cause the system to cycle the brakes on and off, increasing wear. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 17, 2014 at 22:53
  • $\begingroup$ There are some engines that can run in both directions. $\endgroup$
    – Johnny
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 23:07
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    $\begingroup$ @Johnny Yes, but those need to be stopped and then restarted in order to do so. You can't do that reliably, within a couple of seconds, as would be needed during landing. There were a few prototype steam-powered planes which did that, though, because reversing a steam engine is very easy. $\endgroup$
    – Chromatix
    Commented Apr 18, 2018 at 2:53

Most jet airliners and some propeller-driven aircraft (chiefly those designed for short-field operations) do in fact have some sort of thrust reversal system already. There is no need for an extra engine for this purpose, which if fitted would be a weight problem and a maintenance nightmare.

The thrust reversers on jet airliners are pairs of ducts which, when deployed, intercept the normal jet exhaust and redirect it forwards. The reverse thrust produced is somewhat less than the forward thrust available, but it's plenty to permit a powerful deceleration, and it's particularly valuable on wet and icy runways where wheel brakes aren't very effective.

The Harrier "jump jet" fighter is nearly unique in its ability to take off and land vertically, and is capable of using the same thrust-vectoring control in combat. By suddenly turning the thrust backwards, the aircraft can decelerate very sharply in midair, potentially moving it from a defensive position in front of an enemy to an offensive position behind it.

The Piaggio Avanti is a particularly interesting civilian turboprop, with an unusual "three surface" wing layout, pusher propellers, and very clean aerodynamics. It can also land and come to a halt within 500m of runway, thanks in part to reversible-pitch propellers. This short-field capability contributes to its lower operating costs versus corporate jets of similar size and performance.


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