Airplane's Wing Detail - American Airpower Museum | Farmingdale, New York

© Sophie W. Smith

Joined October 2012

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Aerodynamics of wings
The design and analysis of the wings of aircraft is one of the principal applications of the science of aerodynamics, which is a branch of fluid mechanics. The properties of the airflow around any moving object can – in principle – be found by solving the Navier-Stokes equations of fluid dynamics. However, except for simple geometries these equations are notoriously difficult to solve. Fortunately, simpler explanations can be described.

For a wing to produce “lift”, it must be oriented at a suitable angle of attack relative to the flow of air past the wing. When this occurs the wing deflects the airflow downwards, “turning” the air as it passes the wing. Since the wing exerts a force on the air to change its direction, the air must exert a force on the wing, equal in size but opposite in direction. This force manifests itself as differing air pressures at different points on the surface of the wing.

A region of lower-than-normal air pressure is generated over the top surface of the wing, with a higher pressure on the bottom of the wing. These air pressure differences can be either measured directly using instrumentation, or can be calculated from the airspeed distribution using basic physical principles—including Bernoulli’s Principle, which relates changes in air speed to changes in air pressure.

The lower air pressure on the top of the wing generates a smaller downward force on the top of the wing than the upward force generated by the higher air pressure on the bottom of the wing. Hence, a net upward force acts on the wing. This force is called the “lift” generated by the wing.

The different velocities of the air passing by the wing, the air pressure differences, the change in direction of the airflow, and the lift on the wing are intrinsically one phenomenon. It is, therefore, possible to calculate lift from any of the other three. For example, the lift can be calculated from the pressure differences, or from different velocities of the air above and below the wing, or from the total momentum change of the deflected air. Fluid dynamics offers other approaches to solving these problems—and all produce the same answers if done correctly. Given a particular wing and its velocity through the air, debates over which mathematical approach is the most convenient to use can be mistaken by novices as differences of opinion about the basic principles of flight. Read more

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