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 in turn 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 will cause the propeller blade angle to increase as necessary to maintain the selected rpm. A reduction in airspeed or increase in propeller load will cause 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 will be 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.
Learn more about aircraft and their systems with A Pilot’s Guide to Aircraft and Their Systems by ASA. Pilot-oriented rather than mechanic-oriented, this guide to aircraft systems is designed specifically to help general aviation pilots understand how aircraft systems work so that they can better use them in flight.