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.
On aircraft equipped with a constant-speed propeller, power output is controlled by the throttle and indicated by a manifold pressure gauge. The gauge measures the absolute pressure of the fuel/air mixture inside the intake manifold and is more correctly a measure of manifold absolute pressure (MAP). At a constant rpm and altitude, the amount of power produced is directly related to the fuel/air flow being delivered to the combustion chamber. As the throttle setting is increased, more fuel and air flows to the engine and MAP increases. When the engine is not running, the manifold pressure gauge indicates ambient air pressure (i.e., 29.92 inches mercury (29.92 "Hg)). When the engine is started, the manifold pressure indication will decrease to a value less than ambient pressure (i.e., idle at 12 "Hg). Engine failure or power loss is indicated on the manifold gauge as an increase in manifold pressure to a value corresponding to the ambient air pressure at the altitude where the failure occurred. [Figure 6-9]
The manifold pressure gauge is color coded to indicate the engine’s operating range. The face of the manifold pressure gauge contains a green arc to show the normal operating range, and a red radial line to indicate the upper limit of manifold pressure.
For any given rpm, there is a manifold pressure that should not be exceeded. If manifold pressure is excessive for a given rpm, the pressure within the cylinders could be exceeded, placing undue stress on the cylinders. If repeated too frequently, this stress can weaken the cylinder components and eventually cause engine failure. As a general rule, manifold pressure (inches) should be less than the rpm.
A pilot can avoid conditions that overstress the cylinders by being constantly aware of the rpm, especially when increasing the manifold pressure. Conform to the manufacturer’s recommendations for power settings of a particular engine to maintain the proper relationship between manifold pressure and rpm.
When both manifold pressure and rpm need to be changed, avoid engine overstress by making power adjustments in the proper order:
- When power settings are being decreased, reduce manifold pressure before reducing rpm. If rpm is reduced before manifold pressure, manifold pressure will automatically increase, possibly exceeding the manufacturer’s tolerances.
- When power settings are being increased, reverse the order—increase rpm first, then manifold pressure.
- To prevent damage to radial engines, minimize operating time at maximum rpm and manifold pressure, and avoid operation at maximum rpm and low manifold pressure.