To better understand how aircraft function, student pilots must familiarize themselves with their aircraft’s form of propulsion. Acquiring a holistic understanding of your aircraft’s engine and how it works can help you become a safer and more efficient pilot. More than that, it can help you diagnose mechanical problems that can lead to further damage. With this in mind, this blog will cover two of the most basic forms of propulsion: propeller and jet engine propulsion.
Even early aviation pioneers knew that the secret to maintaining flight and defying gravity had to do with the propulsion of the aircraft. Regardless of the power an aircraft may have, power must be controlled with precision, distributed throughout the airframe, and balanced with the amount of fuel it necessitates. Originally, engine power was developed for the needs of the military. Today, engine power is also a critical part of modern jet travel outside of the military realm.
Before getting into the peculiarities of propeller and jet engine propulsion, you must understand how engines work. Airplane engines move an aircraft by pulling it through the atmosphere, or by displacing air from the front of the aircraft to the back of it. Propulsion, or the means of displacing air, is achieved by propellers or jets. Often called props, propellers are small airfoils that are skillfully shaped to generate lift horizontally. Jets, on the other hand, pull air in, combine it with fuel, and ignite the resulting mixture.
The earliest aircraft were all equipped with propellers as jet engine power did not arrive until WWII. With rapid advances in technology during WWII, propellers reached a peak in how fast they could fly. In fact, even the most efficient propeller engine has an innate limitation. As the rotational velocity of the tip of the propeller approaches the speed of sound, shock waves develop and generate increased drag that destroys the propeller’s efficiency beyond a certain speed. However, technological advancements aim to resolve this particular issue.
In an attempt to get past the limitation of propellers, aircraft designers have looked to rocket technology as a solution for more speed. As such, early versions of jet engines were like scaled-down rockets, utilizing the power of combusting fuel-air mixtures to generate thrust. The first jet fighter, the Me-163, built by Germany, was rocket-propelled. Unfortunately, the pilot had little control over thrust, and it was forced to fly until the fuel was spent and it could glide into a landing.
Following WWII, jet engine technology saw many changes, allowing aircraft to go faster and fly higher than ever. That being said, the turbofan engine was devised, creating a great leap in efficiency. Modern jet engines are called high-bypass turbofans as most of the air entering the engine is directed around the engine after being drawn in by the leading fan, producing more thrust than the jet portion. Despite time, the turbine portion of jets has never changed, but the leading fan has increased in size which boosts efficiency.
A combination of jet and prop can be seen in the development of turboprop engines. Turboprops utilize the power of a jet engine to turn a propeller. The exploding fuel-air mixture is contained and vented over the turbine assembly that is connected to the propeller. It is important to note that none of the jet blast is used for propulsion. On some turboprops, the jet portion is installed backward so that the jet blast is directed forward and onto the propeller turbines.
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