Is a propeller a wing?

Adam Davis
  • Is a propeller a wing? Adam Davis

    An aviation expert reminded me that a propeller is a wing.

    While I understand that propellers use similar principles to generate force, it muddied the definition of a rotary wing aircraft vs a fixed wing aircraft. If the propeller of a fixed wing aircraft is considered a wing, what is the distinction between the two? Is it how much surface area each type of wing works on? Is it the direction of force?

  • I think most people would say the answer is no. Consider the dictionary.com definition as it relates to Aeronautics:

    9. Aeronautics . a. one of a pair of airfoils attached transversely to the fuselage of an aircraft and providing lift. b. both airfoils, taken collectively.

    The wings are the big airfoils which are responsible for generating most of the vertical lift.

    A colloquial test of this definition would be to grab a CFI and ask him/her to "point out the wings on this airplane to me." They won't point out the propeller. (Not a scientific experiment)

    However, both wings and propellers are airfoils (and so are the other wing-like surfaces such as the vertical and horizontal stabilizers). You might get some disagreement about whether those other surfaces are wings, but I believe the answer is still no. There is nothing to be gained by calling them wings, and only leads to ambiguity. We already have a word which describes lifting surfaces in-general, and again, it's airfoil.

  • After doing a little more research, I have come to the conclusion that the answer is probably no. Since wings produce lift, I would argue that a propeller is not a wing since it does not produce lift, but thrust.

    Since thrust is pretty much always perpendicular to lift, I can't see how the propeller would ever actually produce lift.

    lift,thrust

  • An aviation expert reminded me that a propeller is a wing.

    This is not false- a wing generates lift by creating a pressure difference, in the same way a propeller does. Wing typically refers to the structure lifting the main weight of the aircraft, while a propeller generates thrust, so from definition it's probably incorrect, from a theoretical standpoint it's the same principle.

    While I understand that propellers use similar principles to generate force, it muddied the definition of a rotary wing aircraft vs a fixed wing aircraft.

    A fixed wing aircraft will move at speed to generate sufficient lift to get airborne. A helicopter will be able to lift off vertically by spinning the blades quickly enough, which will have the same effect as moving forward.

    If the propeller of a fixed wing aircraft is considered a wing, what is the distinction between the two? Is it how much surface area each type of wing works on? Is it the direction of force?

    Propeller thrust is directed forwards. In level flight it contributes very little to lifting the plane up- that's left to the wings to do.

    Rotary wing aircraft's blades do really work as a propeller: By increasing the angle of attack on one side, you generate more thrust, and the helicopter flies in the direction you want it to, since there's a force vector in that direction.

    heli

    Distinction between the two: Rotorcraft generate the thrust to lift off themselves. A propeller generates the thrust (and in turn speed) necessary to create lift over fixed surfaces.

  • Is a propeller a wing? Maybe. It depends on how pedantic you feel like being about your definitions.

    A propeller is certainly an airfoil (usually several of them - each blade is an airfoil, and you can have one blade, two, three, four, or more attached to a hub).

    A wing is also an airfoil.

    Aerodynamically a wing and a propeller function the same way: Air moves over the surface of the airfoil(s), producing "lift". In the case of the wing the lift is mainly vertical and we call it "lift", while in the case of a propeller it's mainly horizontal and we call the resulting force "thrust" instead.


    My two cents, ignoring all the dictionary pedantry? A propeller is an airfoil, but it is not a wing.

    Why? Simple:

    If I'm flying along and my propeller magically vanishes I'm now flying a really inefficient glider.
    My day is ruined and when I catch the guy with the genie-in-a-lamp who wished my propeller away I'll probably beat them up, but I have a fair chance of putting the aircraft on the ground without killing myself or anyone else.

    If I'm flying along and my right wing magically vanishes the genie-posessing miscreant is safe as I'm almost certainly going to die. All the lift from the remaining wing is going to try to flip the aircraft over, and I'm nowhere near skilled enough to keep control with a missing wing and land safely.

  • Since no one else mentioned this, I thought I would. Wilbur Wright, of the Wright brothers, said that a propeller was nothing more than a twisted wing.

    If you accept his analogy, then the twisted wings that compose a propeller are clearly specialized wings, but they do generate a differential in air pressure above/in front of and below/behind as the surface moves through the air. That is what a wing does.

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