Aircraft that use propellers as their prime propulsion device constitute a historically important subset of aircraft, despite limitations inherent in their speed. Aircraft powered by piston engines get all of their thrust from the propeller driven by the engine. All aircraft prior to World War II (except for a tiny number of early Jet aircraft and Rocket airplanes) used piston engines to drive propellers, so all Flight airspeed records prior to 1944 were necessarily set by propeller-driven aircraft. Rapid advances in jet engine technology during World War II meant that no propeller-driven aircraft would ever again hold an absolute air speed record. Shock wave formation in propeller-driven aircraft at speeds near sonic conditions, impose limits not encountered in jet aircraft.
Jet engines, particularly turbojets , are a type of gas turbine configured such that most of the work available results from the thrust of the hot exhaust gases. High bypass turbofans that are used in all modern commercial jetliners, and most modern military aircraft, get most of their thrust from the internal fan which is powered by a gas turbine in much the same way as a turboprop. Gas turbines can be configured such that most of the work is available from the rotating engine shaft. Coupling such a gas turbine with a propeller gives a turboprop engine. The hot exhaust gas from a turboprop engine can give a small amount of thrust, but the propeller is the main source of thrust.
The Tupolev Tu-114, a large aircraft with four turboprop engines, has a maximum speed of 870 km/h (Mach 0.73, 541 mph). The 11,000 kW (14,800 shp) Kuznetsov NK-12 turboprop engines designed for the Tu-95 (and used to power the derivative Tu-114) are the most powerful turboprops ever built and drive large contra-rotating propellers. This engine-propellor combination gives the Tu-114 the official distinction of being the fastest propeller-driven plane in the world, a record it has held since 1960.
Probably the fastest aircraft ever fitted with an operating propeller was the experimental McDonnell XF-88B, which was made by installing a Allison T38 turboshaft engine in the nose of a pure jet-powered XF-88 Voodoo. This unusual aircraft was intended to explore the use of high-speed propellers and achieved supersonic speeds. This aircraft is not considered to be propeller-driven since most of the thrust was provided by two jet engines.
An oft-cited contender for the fastest propeller-driven aircraft is the XF-84H Thunderscreech. This aircraft is named in Guinness World Records, 1997, as the fastest in this category with a speed of 1002 km/h (623 mph, Mach 0.83). While it may have been designed as the fastest propeller-driven aircraft, this goal was not realized due to its inherent instability. This record speed is also inconsistent with data from the National Museum of the United States Air Force, which gives a top speed of 837 km/h (520 mph, Mach 0.70).
The more "traditional" class of propeller-driven aircraft are those powered by piston engines, which includes nearly all aircraft from the Wright brothers up through World War II. Today, piston engines are used almost exclusively on light, general aviation aircraft. The record for the fastest single-engined piston plane is held by a modified Grumman F8F Bearcat, with a speed of 850.24 km/h (528.33 mph) on 21 August 1989 at Las Vegas, Nevada, United States of America.
The FAI record for the fastest piston-powered aircraft, over a long distance (1000 km (621 miles)) is 660.53 km/h (410.43 mph) set on 20 June 1946 by a Boeing B-29 Superfortress of the United States Army Air Forces. Higher speed records may exist for other aircraft but are unofficial and not measured by FAI.
As aircraft designers adopted all-metal monoplanes in the 1930s, speeds jumped into the 700 km/h (400 mph) range with the Macchi M.C.72 reaching a top speed of 709 km/h (440 mph ). The Messerschmitt Me 209 V1 set a new world speed record of almost 756 km/h (470 mph) on 26 April 1939 and the Republic XP-47J (a variant of the P-47 Thunderbolt) reached 813 km/h (505 mph) in testing. The record-shattering flight, on October 2, 1941, of one of the Messerschmitt Me 163 rocket fighter prototypes that reached a top speed of 624 mph [1004 km/h], as well as development of jet-powered fighters by both the Allies, and Axis powers, during World War II, ensured that all new absolute air speed records would be held by jet or rocket-powered aircraft.
During the 1950s, two unorthodox United States Navy fighter prototypes married turboprop engines with a "tailsitting design", the Convair XFY "Pogo" and the Lockheed XFV "Salmon". Maximum speeds of 980 km/h (610 mph, 530 knots, Mach 0.82) at 4,600 m (15,000 ft ) and 930 km/h (580 mph, Mach 0.78) respectively have been quoted. These speeds seem unlikely given that the Lockheed XFV was fitted with a less powerful engine than it was designed for and had makeshift unretractable landing gear for horizontal take-off and landing and the Convair XFY had a makeshift landing gear to support it in a vertical position and it was usually flown with the cockpit open in case the pilot needed to escape, since the ejection seat was thought to be unreliable.