Piston Propfan Proposal

By Christopher Williams PPL, AGI

R&D, COnSULTING and Innovation Spinouts


Whelan & Williams Industries, Inc. © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. 




Traditional Propellers

After a recent bout of studying piston engine aircraft performance, I’ve become convinced that advanced engines are not really necessary for higher cruise speeds. All evidence points towards propeller design as the missing link in light aircraft capabilities. Propellers for the most part have not changed since World War I. The most recent developments have involved scimitar shapes, swept tips and lightweight composite materials. However the basic issue of thrust diminishing with increasing speed has remained an issue.

An aircraft with a fixed pitch propeller can be thought of as a car with only one gear. Fixed pitch props can be optimized for takeoff, cruise or a mixture of the two. The cruise prop will have lackluster takeoff and climb performance due to its higher pitch. The engine literally doesn’t have the power to spin the prop to its optimum speed at a static condition. Conversely, the takeoff or climb prop will have large amounts of thrust at low speed, but a limited top speed. The hybrid prop is a middle of the road compromise between the two.

High performance aircraft work around this problem by varying the pitch of their blades to allow for maximum thrust at high RPM situations like takeoff, and maximum efficiency at lower RPM conditions like long-range cruise. This is the aeronautical equivalent of shifting gears in a manual transmission car. A system of flyweights and a governor allows the system to seek the pitch that maintains a selected RPM.

As an aircraft accelerates, all propellers make progressively less thrust, even though the engine is producing increasing amounts of power as the prop unloads. This situation has been considered unavoidable, even though it is very possible that there is a way around this dilemma. In theory, there is a way to achieve this, that is not complex and fairly easy to manufacture. To solve this problem, we will look to high bypass turbofan engines.

Turbofan Advantages

In the quest for speed, the piston engine has long been abandoned for turbine engines. With an extremely high power to weight ratio, long times between overhauls and superb performance at high altitudes, any turbine engine can be viewed as superior to a piston engine with regards to speed. Where they do no fare as well is in terms of fuel economy and purchase cost. While a new mid-size piston engine for aircraft will be in the $30,000 range, a small turbine engine can easily run 10 times that price.

Fuel consumption is also high for a pure jet, thus almost all new engines are either turboprop or turbofan variants. In the turboprop, a propeller is driven by the turbine via a reduction gearbox. In a turbofan, a large ducted fan is driven by the turbine. While aerodynamically speaking, they are very similar in operation, there are specific features in design that allow for the turbofan to perform at high subsonic speeds with incredible efficiency. The fact that the massive fan does not require variable pitch, yet produces most of the engine’s thrust from zero airspeed all the way up to Mach 0.90 indicates that their design should be studied in further detail for our purposes.

A close look shows that a fan can be considered a nearly solid disk with slots for air to be pulled through (looking at a turbofan from the front, it is very hard to see behind the blades compared with the ease of looking past the 2 or 3 blades of a propeller). These slots are simply the spaces between the blades and vary based on the blade chord. The blades themselves can range in shape from simple twisted polygons to scimitar shaped with serrations for shockwave control. Blade twist is markedly more severe than the twist featured on a propeller due to the larger operational speed range. The cross-section is normally a circular-arc airfoil optimized for supersonic flow. These factors are important in creating a propeller derivative.

Propfan Ver 2.0?

Compare the fan on a turbofan engine with a traditional propeller. Whereas the fan may have over 30 blades, a propeller will have only 2 or 3. If properly balanced, the fan will operate with far less vibration than the propeller. It will also move a greater mass flow per second due provided that adequate horsepower is available to spin it. A propeller will have a larger diameter for a given thrust level than a similar turbofan. This allows a slower rotational speed, keeping tip speeds subsonic and providing higher propulsive efficiency. Supersonic tip speeds are not a concern for turbofans due to the duct eliminating tip losses. Finally, a fan can recover ram pressure as forward speed increases, whereas a propeller will not.

If we assume that our propeller will be a bolt-on replacement for standard 2 and 3 blade props, we cannot duct it. It also must not exceed the diameter or weight of the original prop and be simple to maintain. With these constraints in mind, a 6 to 8 blade design will provide a compromise between static thrust, ram recovery, and low enough noise without the issues of balancing that arise with increasing numbers of blades.

Starting with straight blades of roughly equal tip and root chord, we can introduce severe twist to allow the root to operate un-stalled at very high forward velocities at a rotational speed of around 2500 RPM, which is an average operating range for a piston engine. To ensure that noise is kept to acceptable levels, the blades must be curved and swept to reduce diameter without a commensurate loss of blade surface area. The sweep ideally would begin around the midspan of the blade, rather than near the tip as is typically done.

Those who remember the propfan studies of the late 1980s may make the connection that the aforementioned propeller sounds a lot like the UDF demonstrator. Aesthetically this is true but there are several significant differences. A propfan has much higher blade loading, variable pitch and is driven by a turbine. Our design has a relatively low loading, fixed pitch and is driven by a piston engine. The benefits are ease of construction, maintenance, and operation. For existing aircraft, the major advantages will be improved fuel consumption, faster climb rates, higher ceilings, lower noise and longer engine life. Obviously, cleansheet designs will have to be conceived in order to take full advantage of the possibilities.


A potential issue with the use of these propellers is the relatively low RPM at takeoff. This reduces the amount of power that the engine can generate. Luckily, most existing aircraft have a narrow enough speed range that plenty of thrust can still be created even at reduced horsepower levels. As designs emerge that have a speed range greater than roughly 300mph, more work will have to be done on optimizing both ends of the speed spectrum.

With normally aspirated engines, a ram effect from the inner section of the propeller will delay loss of power at higher altitudes. Should forced induction through supercharging or turbocharging be used, care should be taken to ensure that dangerously high manifold pressures are not produced, especially at low RPM settings. The use of electronic ignition with variable spark timing is recommended to ensure that the engine remains out of detonation range at all times.

Structural integrity of the blades will be complicated by the compound curvatures. Materials that are resistant to impact, vibration and torsional stress are required for adequate durability and resistance to flight loads. Use of titanium or single crystal materials would provide the required strength at acceptable weights, but at the detriment of increased cost.


All of this is theoretical and has not been proven other than basic research and back-of-the-napkin sketches. Considering that experimental propfans were able to achieve a 30% reduction in fuel consumption over existing turbofans, the concept does hold merit. Our design may provide a similar boost to existing piston aircraft, but only if the thrust per horsepower ratio is improved over traditional propellers. Testing will begin with experimenting via computer simulations for the best designs and progress to physical models. Comparing our design to traditional propellers will indicate the potential efficiency gains. From there more complete analysis using the horsepower required and drag force of several common general aviation aircraft can be completed.