Aircraft Feathering: What does and how does it work?

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"Feathering" in the context of aviation refers to a specific action taken with the propeller blades of an aircraft, particularly in the case of a multi-engine aircraft experiencing engine failure. Feathering is a technique used to reduce drag on a failed or malfunctioning engine, thus improving the overall aerodynamic performance of the aircraft. Here's how it works technically:

  1. Feathering Process:
    • Feathering involves changing the pitch angle of the blades on a propeller. When an engine fails or becomes inoperative, the pilot can "feather" the propeller blades, meaning they rotate the blades parallel to the airflow. This minimizes the resistance created by the non-functioning engine.
  2. Pitch Control Mechanism:
    • The pitch angle of the propeller blades is controlled by a mechanism within the propeller hub. This mechanism allows the pilot to adjust the angle of the blades, determining how they interact with the oncoming air.
  3. Normal Pitch vs. Feathered Pitch:
    • In normal operation, the blades are set to a pitch that allows them to "bite" into the air, generating thrust. However, in the event of an engine failure, leaving the propeller blades in their normal pitch would create significant drag from the windmilling action, impeding the aircraft's performance.
    • By feathering the blades, the pitch is adjusted to minimize the windmilling effect, effectively aligning the blades with the airflow. This reduces drag and allows the aircraft to maintain better performance on the remaining operative engines.
  4. Feathering in Multi-Engine Aircraft:
    • Feathering is especially crucial in multi-engine aircraft. When an engine fails, feathering the propeller on that side reduces the asymmetric thrust and yawing moment that would otherwise be generated.
    • This asymmetry is a result of the windmilling propeller on the failed engine, which creates additional drag on that side. Feathering helps the pilot maintain better control of the aircraft during single-engine operation.
  5. Automatic Feathering Systems:
    • Some modern aircraft are equipped with automatic feathering systems. These systems detect an engine failure and automatically adjust the propeller blades to the feathered position without direct pilot input.

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