About Propellers Other Products Articles Bookshop Gallery Links Contact Supercool

Propeller Dynamics

Essential reading for model aircraft contest fliers. This is the only book on the market explaining propeller theory in non-mathematical terms. A rattling good read, I know, I wrote it.


Integrity testing of a new propeller for Giant Scale Pylon Racing models. 25 X 30

1. Preamble.
There are a number of criteria for propeller design for the big USRA Unlimited pylon racers. Perhaps the most important relates to avoiding the SHITDS. This is the acronym for "Smoking Hole In The Desert Syndrome". Such holes appear regularly in the desert around LA, and their appearance is sometimes hard to explain. However, propeller failure can produce these unfortunate geographical features, and in less time than it takes to say "SHITDS
Next on the list is performance. At 9000 RPM and 240 MPH, a prop needs a considerable blade angle: Not as much as the real "Rare Bear" or the Tu 95, but still plenty enough to produce a reasonable degree of profile efficiency. However, with a tip speed above Mach .9, the aerodynamics starts to get interesting, and it is here that the challenge lies for the prop designer.
Now to examine these points in detail.

2. Propeller failure modes.
Regrettably there are a number of good ways of destroying a perfectly good propeller. One is the manner in which it is mounted to the engine. A second relates to the high instantaneous torque produced when the engine fires. And finally, at low speeds and high RPM, as at takeoff, stall flutter may occur.

2.1. Prop retention.
There are 2 common ways of retaining the propeller. Some engines have a single axial shaft with a single nut retaining the prop. Others have multiple bolt fixings, which vary from 4 to 6 bolts with an axial stud for prop centering. Both are effective, though I prefer the single stud method. But why? The potential for disaster if the prop comes off is very high, so the following should be considered with care.
Engine torque has to be transmitted by the prop driver to the propeller, which absorbs the torque. ie engine produces torque, prop absorbs torque. Now it is nice if these are equal: but with incorrect mounting they may not be, and that lost torque has to go somewhere.
The question thus becomes: what is the safest way to transfer the engine torque into the prop? Well, we have a prop driver, and an assortment of bolts. I guess if we tighten them up enough on to the the prop hub, we have this licked. Wrong, guess again.
If there is low friction or indexing of the prop driver with the prop hub, then there is every probability of slippage between the adjacent faces of the driver and the hub. Due to the high instantaneous torque of firing, this can and has happened. The resultant oscillations produce heat which can melt the epoxy within moments, and then, SHITDS. The prop comes loose, the high tensile bolts break in bending, and its all over red-rover.
The message here is that the bolts are not intended to transfer engine torque to the prop. On full scale aircraft, the bolts do not even touch the prop, but have clearance away from the prop. In the case of wooden props, it is friction drive. For forged aluminium props, there are interference fit studs mounted on the prop driver. We need to pay attention to these guys, they learn this stuff by killing pilots.
The reason I like a single axial bolt fixing is that in this eventuality we are not snapping bolts. Those snapping bolts don't come off evenly; the resultant side forces being free to rip out the engine as well. Some have survived this engine-loss catastrophe, but its not something you would want to test for yourself. Better to be old than bold. With the single-bolt fixing, engine loss is much less likely. But hey! we have enough problems already without this, so what is the solution?
Well, we gotta stop the torque-induced slippage. For 60 years at least, model engines have had knurled prop drivers. The knurls are there to provide friction, and if they are sharp as well, then they also provide mechanical indexing, or maybe registration is a better word. The knurls must bite into the prop hub: they must and are required to damage the surface of the hub.
There are engine outfits out there that sell engines with smooth, polished prop drivers, and they get away with it, most of the time. But your big Herbie or whatever won't take long to throw the prop off, believe me. So the rule is: transfer torque with friction/indexing, and use the bolts to crush the prop onto the knurls.
End of story. Here endeth sermon 2.1.

2.2 Torque failures
There are three directions that interest us with propellers. These are axial, radial and tangential. The tangential direction corresponds to forces acting in the torque plane, which lies in the propeller disc.
The problem we have is that the instantaneous torque can be very high, due to engine firing for only a short period in the rotation of 360 degrees. If the engine detonates or has advanced ignition timing, then the torques can be very high indeed, to the point where the propeller experiences a failure mode seldom discussed in the literature, but fairly common on models.
Most people are aware of the high tension forces which exist due to prop rotation. However, tension failures are quite rare, and almost non-existent in composite propellers, whether of wood or carbon/glass/kevlar construction. It can even be argued that the tension force strengthens these materials, and certainly stiffens the prop against torque and thrust loads.
Most failures occur in nylon/plastic props, simply because these materials are just not strong enough in tension for the high rotation speeds we like to use. Aluminium props, if properly forged are fine, but have a lifetime determined by the fatigue properties of the metal. This is also true of wood props. I have an F3D prop which has 200 runs on it. But it is retired, because the epoxy in the hub is cracking up: the carbon fibre in the blade is just fine.
So where is this headed? Well, torque plane failures do occur. What is interesting is where and how they occur. They appear as compression failures on the front blade surface near the hub. The appearance is that of wrinkles running fore and aft of the airfoil section, maybe 20% of the radius out from the hub.
This is a bit weird. Thrust failures would appear on the other (rear or face) surface, but they don't. Tension failures might be expected to from on both surfaces, but they don't. So what is it about torque failures?
Well, near the hub we usually have a high blade angle. This effectively makes the prop appear "thin" in the torque plane, thereby reducing resistance to the prop trying to fold back on itself in the torque plane. This is consistent with both the location of the failure and the comression nature of the failure.
So why worry? Just make that area stronger. Well, that is not so easy. We are not talking about carbon fibres in tension here. Rather, we have resin/fibres in compression: not nearly so nice.
I wish I had a solution to this problem which would work all the time, but I don't. So my approach is to add thickness as a projection in the torque plane; avoid high torques due to detonation; and in the case of big fat radials, keep the blade angle as low as reasonable in front of the cowl. This latter turns out to be an OK thing to do in the aerodynamic sense as well, so that at least is win-win.
So what to do about it? Well, inspect the prop after every run and look for compression failure marks on the front near the hub. You'll recognise them by the way a chill runs down your spine when your subconscious brain recognises them first!

2.3 Stall flutter. Ok, now we get a chance to throw the tips off! Much more fun, and a bit less likely to give us the SHITDS. Of course, you do have a safety wire from the engine to the airframe, don't you? They don't glide too well with the engine out (and I do mean OUT).
There is a condition referred to as "propeller stall". It is a complex subject, and I won't go into it here, as it seems to provoke disputes with the wing expert guys. But tis a nasty you need to avoid.
Consider this condition. Full revs and the airplane stationary on the ground. As a first approximation, you can imagine that this puts the tip airfoil at a high angle of attack. High enough in fact to stall. The problem is, that this stall can be transient and be followed by another stall. ie, lift, lose lift, lift again. My friends, the devil invented this oscillation, and he has many victims who found their way into hell due to flutter.
Now to keep this simple, stall flutter does occur, however you choose to describe the process. The trick is to recognise and know you are on the wide and slippery slope.
Many years ago, I made an F3D prop (28000 RPM, 160 MPH) which worked fine at home here in Oz. But in Florida, at the World Champs, it decided to misbehave on the flight line. Folks, it made so much noise that the other contestants could not hear to tune their own engines. Wish I could claim credit for such a brilliant tactic, but it was accidental. My guy came 7th, so that was OK.
Well, it was stall flutter making that noise. Model engine noise is typically composed of a harmonic at the frequency of the engine revs/second, with a set of equally spaced harmonics above that. The strength of each harmonic seems to be a bit unpredictable, but they do weaken a lot above the 7th or so. Mostly.
If you have stall flutter, this all changes. A couple of the harmonics may grow massively in intensity, so that the beautiful unsymphonic engine roar becomes a howl, with beats forming due to the strong harmonics. The little F3d props (7.5" diameter) are tough enough to take this, but on your Unlimiteds you can kiss your tips goodbye. This may also diminish performance, but I'll leave you to imagine where and how!
The solution? If stall flutter is present, it immediately diminishes and ceases as the aircraft gains speed. Best on take-off to ease the throttle open slowly as the airplane runs down the strip: then the condition that leads to stall flutter (high RPM, low speed) does not occur. Be kind to your props!
Now we have finished with prop failure modes. Now doubt there are inventive types out there who can create others, but that is the best we can do for now.

3. Aerodynamics. There is something nice about those big fat radial cowls on Bearcat, Corsair and Sea Fury racers (not to mention the fighter version of the T6). Very nice, and warming to the heart of the propeller designer. It is this. The inflow field of the air entering the propeller disc is axially symmetric. Even better, there is a simple result from fluid mechanics that permits one to perform an approximation of the perturbed flow field. This is not the case for poor old GR7, P51 and the hopeless pusher types.
Flow field aside, there is the interesting situation where prop tip speeds approach Mach .92, a region where low Reynolds number and high Mach number effects converge to throw the design problem into confusion.
So we have 3 regions of interest. Prop disc in front of cowl, prop disc outside cowl but relative wind at less than M = .7, and outside M=.7 where shock waves may reasonably be expected to form.

3.1. Cowling/spinner flow field. Air has to flow out and around the spinner /cowl assembly. This means that, compared to the free field flow, the air gains a radial component of flow and loses an axial component of flow velocity. The propeller has no response to the radial component, and hence sees only a reduced axial velocity at the prop disc. As a consequence, the blade angle has to be reduced to provide the best angle of attack for maximum L/D.
As the air may be treated as incompressible, this reduction, to lessening degrees, extends all the way to the tips: indeed, the axial component of flow may still only be 0.9 times the airspeed of the aircraft. Now I call that interesting!
Due to the fortunate existence of a theorem in fluid dynamics related to the sum of sources of flow, this radial gradient of axial flow may be calculated and the correct (or nearly so) blade angle determined.
Propellers that do not allow for this change in flow field may lose a considerable degree of performance. My AT6 prop designed on these lines is 10% faster than a conventional prop, a huge difference in terms of propeller efficiency where designers would kill their grandmother to get just a 1% gain.

3.2 Outside cowl, axial flow less than M = .7. This region of the propeller disc has flow speeds for which there is known data: unfortunately, not for these Reynolds numbers and model-size conditions. From tests with F2A, F2C and F3D propellers, it would appear that Suzuki and Connover type sections out perform any other. These simple shapes, consisting of a flat bottom, with a circular upper-surface leading-edge and sharp-leading edge outperform all others. No idea why, but suspect our friend Reynolds and engine vibration effects on the flow field are involved. Pitch is made to rise as we move away from the cowl.

3.3. Shock wave region, M>.7. Now the fun really starts. If a designer has his way, the tip speed is held below M = .8 because he has no idea what is happening above this Mach number. At least, unless he has been here before. Shock waves form when the local speed of the airflow on the section falls below Mach 1. Behind the shock, turbulence and flow separation may occur. In front of the shock, the conditions which at M<.7 produced lift, now reverse the lift, which is bad.
This looks like no win. However, due to the strongly 3-dimensional flow at the tip, there is a reduction in shock wave formation equivalent to a 10% reduction in Mach number. So now we can get M = .8 before we get too confused. Studies of shockwave formation using Schlieren photography in wind tunnel test in the range .7 < M <1 offer some other insights.
For example, reducing the convexity of the airfoil-section upper- surface delays and weakens the upper shock. Furthermore, drooping the trailing edge moves the lower shock forward and simultaneously weakens it. Nice. Now we have an airfoil like the so-called 'supercritical sections' which revolutionised airliner wing design in the early 1970's. Tests on F3D props showed no loss in performance when an airfoil was adopted with these features, plus a sharp leading edge. This variation from the leading-edge design of the supercritical sections can be excused on the basis of Reynolds number effects and the empirical results. All this despite having only a guess at the zero-lift of the crudely constructed profile. Not bad!

4. Features of the 25X30. This prop has all the features dictated by the above observations and guesses. That is, low pitch in the hub region, increasing progressively outside the cowl all the way to the tip. The hub airfoils, basically covered by the spinner, are intended to provide sufficient strength to resist impulsive torque loads. The airfoils outside the cowl are radially graded to progress from Suzuki/Connover thru to empirical super-critical section at the extreme tip.
The diameter may be in excess of requirement. It is hoped that the engine willnot be able to turn the prop as supplied above 9000 RPM. The tip may then be trimmed off to give whatever RPM the operator finds gives best performance in the course, noting that best straight line speed does not give best time around the course.
The hub has been rubbed to remove the shiny epoxy surface produced by the mould, thereby increasing friction.
The red coloured points on the hub rear are where holes have been drilled and lead added to provide radial balance. No attempt has been made to give lateral balance.
The carbon rovings are radially graded in quantity to provide maximum strength in tension. The hub is wound with fibreglass rovings to fill the remaining hub volume. It is CNC drilled to a PCD of 1.5", with 4 1/4" orthogonal holes drilled for the retaining bolts.
The blade is tapered in a manner intended to produce an optimal radial distribution of circulation, thereby maximising induced efficiency.

5. Testing. This is a new prop design on an engine of unknown characteristics. testing must proceed with extreme caution, both to protect the operator and avoid un-necessary damage to the propeller. The following recommendations should be considered.

5.1. The engine should be mounted on a test stand for initial test. The prop driver must be deeply and sharply knurled. The retaining bolts should be sufficiently tightened so that the knurls bite into the hub and register there.

5.2 The engine should be started on low throttle and brought up to 6000 RPM for 1 minute. A this point the retaining bolts should be checked for torque and tightened again.

5.3 Retain this procedure in steps of 500 RPM up to full throttle. If stall flutter occurs, immediately close the throttle. Do not exceed this RPM again, at any time when the airplane is stationary on the ground.

5.4. At each RPM above, check for compression failures in the region of the spinner diameter. If compression effects are present, cease running the engine and return the prop to the supplier.

5.5. If the prop survives the ground tests, it should be mounted and flown in an old airframe to reduce the pain of SHITDS should things go awry. On every launch, the engine must not be run at full throttle. If the argument is made that the engine cannot be tuned unless it is run at full throttle on the ground, sack the lazy operator and find someone competent. Advance the throttle only after the model has been released, as before to avoid stall flutter. Even if you made it on the ground-test to full throttle without getting flutter, remember that the conditions for stall flutter may vary with airframe, engine firing and weather. It will jump up and bite you when you least desire it.

5.6. After every flight, check for prop cracks everywhere, with emphasis on the front face of the hub. Stop flying when any anomaly at all appears. Check with Supercool, who is actually the Greek God of propellers reincarnated. He will only fire bolts of lightning at you if you withhold all or any observations, no matter how minor.

5.7. After a dozen flights or so in the test airframe, and with confidence established in the strength and characteristics of the prop, place the prop on your race plane and start again at

5.5. A different airframe will induce difference vibration modes into the prop. You can never relax on fault inspections after every flight. 5.8. If the test prop does not perform up to race standard, contact Supercool who stands by his product, but despite his divinity can have no knowledge which you do not supply. Good flying.

 Back to Top
About Propellers Other Products Articles Bookshop Gallery Links Contact Supercool