Turboprop engines are a type of aircraft powerplant that use a gas turbine to drive a propeller. The gas turbine is designed specifically for this application, with almost all of its output being used to drive the propeller. The engine's exhaust gases contain little energy compared to a jet engine and play only a minor role in the propulsion of the aircraft.
The propeller is coupled to the turbine through a reduction gear that converts the high RPM, low torque output to low RPM, high torque. The propeller itself is normally a constant speed (variable pitch) type similar to that used with larger reciprocating aircraft engines.
Turboprop engines are generally used on small subsonic aircraft, but some aircraft outfitted with turboprops have cruising speeds in excess of 500 kt (926 km/h, 575 mph). Large military and civil aircraft, such as the Lockheed L-188 Electra and the Tupolev Tu-95, have also used turboprop power. The Airbus A400M is powered by four Europrop TP400 engines, which are the third most powerful turboprop engines ever produced, after the Kuznetsov NK-12 and Progress D-27.
In its simplest form a turboprop consists of an intake, compressor, combustor, turbine, and a propelling nozzle. Air is drawn into the intake and compressed by the compressor. Fuel is then added to the compressed air in the combustor, where the fuel-air mixture then combusts. The hot combustion gases expand through the turbine. Some of the power generated by the turbine is used to drive the compressor. The rest is transmitted through the reduction gearing to the propeller. Further expansion of the gases occurs in the propelling nozzle, where the gases exhaust to atmospheric pressure. The propelling nozzle provides a relatively small proportion of the thrust generated by a turboprop.
Turboprops are very efficient at flight speeds (below 450 mph) because the jet velocity of the propeller (and exhaust) is relatively low. Due to the high price of turboprop engines, they are mostly used where high-performance short-takeoff and landing (STOL) capability and efficiency at modest flight speeds are required. The most common application of turboprop engines in civilian aviation is in small commuter aircraft, where their greater reliability than reciprocating engines offsets their higher initial cost. Turboprop airliners now operate at near the same speed as small turbofan powered aircraft and burn two thirds of the fuel per passenger. Turboprop powered aircraft have become popular for bush airplanes such as the Cessna Caravan and Quest Kodiak as jet fuel is easier to obtain in remote areas than is aviation grade gasoline (avgas).
Much of the jet thrust in a turboprop is sacrificed in favor of shaft power, which is obtained by extracting additional power (up to that necessary to drive the compressor) from turbine expansion. While the power turbine may be integral with the gas generator section, many turboprops today feature a free power turbine on a separate coaxial shaft. This enables the propeller to rotate freely, independent of compressor speed. Owing to the additional expansion in the turbine system, the residual energy in the exhaust jet is low. Consequently, the exhaust jet produces (typically) less than 10% of the total thrust.
Propellers are not efficient when the tips reach or exceed supersonic speeds. For this reason, a reduction gearbox is placed in the drive line between the power turbine and the propeller to allow the turbine to operate at its most efficient speed while the propeller operates at its most efficient speed. The gearbox is part of the engine and contains the parts necessary to operate a constant speed propeller. This differs from the turboshaft engines used in helicopters, where the gearbox is remote from the engine.
Residual thrust on a turboshaft is avoided by further expansion in the turbine system and/or truncating and turning the exhaust 180 degrees, to produce two opposing jets. Apart from the above, there is very little difference between a turboprop and a turboshaft.
While most modern turbojet and turbofan engines use axial-flow compressors, turboprop engines usually contain at least one stage of centrifugal compression. Centrifugal compressors have the advantage of being simple and lightweight, at the expense of a streamlined shape.
Propellers lose efficiency as aircraft speed increases, so turboprops are normally not used on high-speed aircraft. However, propfan engines, which are very similar to turboprop engines, can cruise at flight speeds approaching Mach 0.75. To increase the efficiency of the propellers, a mechanism can be used to alter the pitch, thus adjusting the pitch to the airspeed. A variable pitch propeller, also called a controllable pitch propeller, can also be used to generate negative thrust while decelerating on the runway. Additionally, in the event of an engine outage, the pitch can be adjusted to a vaning pitch (called feathering), thus minimizing the drag of the non-functioning propeller.
Some commercial aircraft with turboprop engines include the Bombardier Dash 8, ATR 42, ATR 72, BAe Jetstream 31, Embraer EMB 120 Brasilia, Fairchild Swearingen Metroliner, Saab 340 and 2000, Xian MA60, Xian MA600, and Xian MA700.
Alan Arnold Griffith had published a paper on turbine design in 1926. Subsequent work at the Royal Aircraft Establishment investigated axial turbine designs that could be used to supply power to a shaft and thence a propeller. From 1929, Frank Whittle began work on centrifugal turbine designs that would deliver pure jet thrust.
György Jendrassik published a turboprop idea in 1928, on march 12 1929 he patented his turboprop invention. In 1938, he built a small-scale (100 Hp) prototype of his patent. The world's first turboprop was the Jendrassik Cs-1, designed by the Hungarian mechanical engineer György Jendrassik. It was produced and tested in the Ganz factory in Budapest between 1939 and 1942. It was planned to fit to the Varga RMI-1 X/H twin-engined reconnaissance bomber in 1940, but the program was cancelled.
The first British turboprop engine was the Rolls-Royce RB.50 Trent, a converted Derwent II fitted with reduction gear and a Rotol 7-ft, 11-in five-bladed propeller. Two Trents were fitted to Gloster Meteor EE227 — the sole "Trent-Meteor" — which thus became the world's first turboprop powered aircraft, albeit a test-bed not intended for production. It first flew on 20 September 1945. From their experience with the Trent, Rolls-Royce developed the Dart, which became one of the most reliable turboprop engines ever built. Dart production continued for more than fifty years. The Dart-powered Vickers Viscount was the first turboprop aircraft of any kind to go into production and sold in large numbers. It was also the first four-engined turboprop. Its first flight was on 16 July 1948. The world's first single engined turboprop aircraft was the Armstrong Siddeley Mamba-powered Boulton Paul Balliol, which first flew on 24 March 1948.
The Soviet Union built on German World War II development by Junkers (BMW and Hirth/Daimler-Benz also developed and partially tested designs). While the Soviet Union had the technology to create a jet-powered strategic bomber comparable to Boeing's B-52 Stratofortress, they instead produced the Tupolev Tu-95, powered with four Kuznetsov NK-12 turboprops, mated to eight contra-rotating propellers (two per nacelle) with supersonic tip speeds to achieve maximum cruise speeds in excess of 575 mph, faster than many of the first jet aircraft and comparable to jet cruising speeds for most missions. The Bear would serve as their most successful long-range combat and surveillance aircraft and symbol of Soviet power projection throughout the end of the 20th century. The USA would incorporate contra-rotating turboprop engines, such as the ill-fated Allison T40, into a series of experimental aircraft during the 1950s, but none would be adopted into service.
The first American turboprop engine was the General Electric XT31, first used in the experimental Consolidated Vultee XP-81. The XP-81 first flew in December 1945, the first aircraft to use a combination of turboprop and turbojet power. The technology of the Lockheed Electra airliner was also used in military aircraft, such as the P-3 Orion and the C-130 Hercules, using the Allison T56. One of the most produced turboprop engines is the Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 engine.
The first turbine powered, shaft driven helicopter was the Bell XH-13F, a version of the Bell 47 powered by Continental XT-51-T-3 (Turbomeca Artouste) engine.