Contra-rotating propellers, also referred to as coaxial contra-rotating propellers, apply the maximum power of a single piston or turboprop engine to drive two propellers in opposite rotation. Contra-rotating propellers are common in some marine transmission systems, in particular for medium to large size planing leisure crafts. Two propellers are arranged one behind the other, and power is transferred from the engine via a planetary gear transmission. Contra-rotating propellers should not be confused with counter-rotating propellers, a term which describes twin-engined aircraft with the airscrew on one engine turning clockwise and the other counter-clockwise.
When airspeed is low the mass of the air flowing through the propeller disk (thrust) causes a significant amount of tangential or rotational air flow to be created by the spinning blades. The energy of this tangential air flow is wasted in a single propeller design. To use this wasted effort the placement of a second propeller behind the first takes advantage of the disturbed airflow. The tangential air flow also causes handling problems at low speed as the air strikes the rudder/fin, causing the aircraft to swerve left or right, depending of the direction of propeller rotation.
If it is well designed, a contra-rotating propeller will have no rotational air flow, pushing a maximum amount of air uniformly through the propeller disk, resulting in high performance and low induced energy loss. It also serves to counter the asymmetrical torque effect of a conventional propeller. Some contra-rotating systems were designed to be used at take off for maximum power and efficiency, and allowing one of the propellers to be disabled during cruise to extend flight time.
The efficiency of a contra-rotating prop is somewhat offset by its mechanical complexity. Nonetheless, coaxial contra-rotating propellers and rotors are moderately common in military aircraft and naval applications, such as torpedoes, where the added maintenance is not as much of a concern to government budgets.
Some of the more successful British aircraft with contra-rotating propellers are the Avro Shackleton, powered by the Rolls-Royce Griffon engine, and the Fairey Gannet, which used the Double Mamba Mk.101 engine. Later variants of the Supermarine Spitfire and Seafire used the Griffon with contra-rotating props as well. In the Spitfire/Seafire and Shackleton's case the primary reason for using contra-rotating propellers was so as to increase the propeller blade-area, and hence absorb greater engine power, within a propeller diameter limited by the height of the aircraft's undercarriage. Whilst this also applied to the Gannet, in addition this aircraft's engine had two separate power-sections, each driving one propeller.
In the 1950s, the Soviet Union developed the Kuznetsov NK-12 turboprop. It drives an 8-blade contra-rotating propeller and, at 15,000 shp, it is the most powerful turboprop in the world. Four NK-12 engines power the Tupolev Tu-95 Bear, the only contra-rotating turboprop bomber to enter service, as well as one of the fastest propeller-driven aircraft. The Tu-114, an airliner derivative of the Bear, holds the world speed record for propeller aircraft. The Bear was also the first Soviet bomber to have intercontinental range, allowing it to strike North American targets from Asia. The Tu-126 AEW aircraft and Tu-142 maritime patrol aircraft are two more NK-12 powered designs derived from the Bear.
The NK-12 engine powers another well-known Soviet aircraft, the Antonov An-22 Antheus, a heavy-lift cargo aircraft. At the time of its introduction, the An-22 was the largest aircraft in the world and is still by far the world's largest turboprop-powered aircraft. From the 1960s through the 1970s, it set several world records in the categories of maximum payload-to-height ratio and maximum payload lifted to altitude.
In 1994, Antonov produced the An-70, a heavy transport aircraft. It is powered by four Progress D-27 engines driving contra-rotating propellers. The characteristics of the D-27 engine and its propeller make it a propfan, a hybrid between a turbofan engine and a turboprop engine.