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How Does an Airplane Propeller Work?

By Lori Kilchermann
Updated May 17, 2024
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An airplane propeller works much like a spinning wing, with the outside edge of the propeller spinning faster than the center, called the hub. While a great deal of wind is generated behind the propeller and, subsequently, the airplane, the airplane propeller does not power the plane by pushing air or wind; it creates movement of the aircraft by pulling the airplane into the wind or air. Much like a ship's propeller is called a screw for the way it screws itself into the water to pull the boat ahead, the aircraft propeller does the same process as it turns in the air.

The amount of twist machined into the airplane propeller is lesser near the outer edge and more pronounced near the center to compensate for the greater speed of the outer edge. The increase in twist or bevel of the propeller as it nears the slower-moving hub allows the airplane propeller to pull equally as strong all along the length of the blade. In some more advanced airplane propeller designs, the individual blades can be trimmed or adjusted to provide more or less bite into the air. This allows a pilot to adjust the pulling power of an engine on one wing to a comparable pull of the other wing, allowing the plane to be controlled much easier.

The twist engineered into the airplane propeller is critical in deciding the amount of power, commonly called thrust, the propeller is able to provide. Other factors impact thrust, such as engine speed, amount of twist machined into the blades and the diameter of the propeller. The larger the diameter, the more air the blades are able to attack or pull against. Much like installing a taller set of tires on a race car to create more top speed, the larger propeller will offer increased top speed for the airplane.

A helicopter propeller works very similarly to an airplane propeller, however, the helicopter blades are flat and lack twist. The tail rotor, however, is typically machined with a twist very similar to that of the airplane propeller. This is due to the helicopter propeller functioning more in the same capacity as a rotating wing, lifting the aircraft into the sky. The blades on the airplane function more like a screw, pulling the aircraft into the sky.

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Discussion Comments

By Animandel — On Sep 11, 2014

When we went on vacation last year, we did a lot of driving through small towns and lightly populated communities. It was a very long road trip. Along one highway, we came across this place that had hundreds of old airplane propellers. The property had several barns and a house and there were propellers all over the place.

The owner showed us around and explained the significance of the propellers. Some of them were really old ones made of wood. Some of them were less old ones made of metal. I don't think I would have been overly impressed by the propellers if there had been only a few of them, but there were so many of them and all sizes that I was overwhelmed.

By Sporkasia — On Sep 11, 2014

I know a local woodworker who makes airplane propellers out of wood. He has a shop out back from his house where he does all of the work. He starts with a template for the propeller and then chooses the type of wood he wants.

Once he chooses the wood, he places the template and a block of the wood together and starts cutting. After a lot of drilling and chiseling and other stuff, he comes up with a wooden airplane propeller. Once he gets the wood sanded and then varnished the airplane propeller looks like a work of art.

By Feryll — On Sep 10, 2014

Even after reading this article and reading how the airplane propeller works, I don't understand how planes stay in the air. In fact, I don't understand how they ever get off the ground. I know it's easy to take technology and engineering for granted, but I will always be amazed at how airplanes work.

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