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Publication #16
What is the Optimum
Fin Shape for Altitude?
P/N 36016
1998 Apogee Components, Inc.
All Rights Reserved
By Tim Van Milligan
Im often asked the questi on of
whi ch fi n shape i s best for smal l
competi ti on rockets. What Im about
to tel l you about thi s may shock
What is the Best Shape?
Many peopl e have been tol d that
fri cti on drag and pressure drag. The
profi l e drag force i s determi ned by a
number of factors, i ncl udi ng the sur-
face fi ni sh on the fi n, ai rfoi l used, area
of the fi n, the l ength of the fi n chord,
and the speed at whi ch the rocket
travel s. The l ast two factors are al so
used wi th other parameters to deter-
mi ne the Reynol ds Number for the
The Reynol ds Number i s often used
to determi ne the Coeffi ci ent- of- Li ft
of the fi n at vari ous angl e- of- attacks
(AOA). You can see from Fi gure 2, that
the hi gher the Reynol ds Number, the
hi gher the fi ns Coeffi ci ent- of- Li ft.
Therefore, i t wi l l be more effi ci ent at
creati ng a restori ng force to correct
the si de of the rocket i s exposed to the
ai rfl ow. Thi s makes i t hi ghl y desi r-
abl e to have a fi n that has a hi gh
Coeffi ci ent - of- Li ft , so t he model
qui ckl y restores to the correct fl i ght
path when the AOA i s sti l l smal l .
If you l ook around for data, you
wi l l fi nd that the Coeffi ci ent- of- Li ft i s
determi ned by the ai rfoi l of the fi n,
not i ts shape (see Fi gure 3). We wi l l
now see that the wrong shape can
Which Fin Shape is Best?
the el l i pti cal fi n shape has the l owest
i nduced drag. Whi l e that may be true
for ful l si ze ai rpl anes, i t may not be
necessarily true for small model rock-
ets. The reason i s buri ed i n the very
techni cal subj ect about somethi ng
cal l ed the fi ns Reynolds Number. Il l try
to descri be thi s wi thout getti ng too
techni cal , because I want even young
modelers to understand this (Ive seen
too many sci ence fai r proj ects wi th
the subj ect bei ng "fi n shapes").
There are two types of drag on a
rocket; induced drag, and profile drag.
Induced drag onl y occurs when the
fi n creates l i ft. So i f the rocket i s fl yi ng
al ong ni ce- and- stabl e, the fi ns dont
have to create any l i ft forces to
strai ghten out the fl i ght path of the
rocket. Hence, the i nduced drag on
the rocket may be near zero. There-
fore, i t i s hi ghl y l i kel y that your rocket
wi l l have the same i nduced drag
forces no matter what shape fi n you
use because typi cal l y a model fl i es
strai ght and true and the i nduced
drag i n the rocket i s very, very smal l .
Profi l e drag on the other hand, i s
al ways present. It i s a combi nati on of
the path of a rocket.
So i f your rocket i s fl yi ng sl ow, and
has very smal l fi ns, the Reynol ds
number mi ght be so l ow that the fi n
wi l l be very i neffecti ve (because the
Coeffi ci ent- of- Li ft wi l l be smal l er).
And i f your rocket starts to stray from
a verti cal path, the model wi l l cant
much further over before the AOA i s
hi gh enough to force a l arger Coeffi -
ci ent- of- Li ft. Thi s wi l l then start to
bri ng the rocket back to verti cal , but
now the i nduced drag real l y starts to
i ncrease as does profi l e drag; because
make the si tuati on even worse.
The most effi ci ent part of the fi n i s
at the ti ps; where the ai rfl ow i s ni ce
and smooth because i t i s outsi de the
turbulence caused by air flowing over
the nose of the rocket. On el l i pti cal
Fig 2: As Reynolds No. increases,
the airfoil becomes more effective.
Fig 3: Different airfoil shapes have
different lift curve slopes.
Fig 4: The tips
are the most
effective portion
of the fin,
because they
are in the least
Knowing what shape to use helps your
models fly higher and win rocket contests!
RN = 1,000,000
RN = 500,000
RN = 100,000
Airfoil Shape A
Airfoil Shape B
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fi ns, and on other shapes where the
ti p i s reduced because of taperi ng, the
Reynol ds Number i s even further
reduced remember that Reynol ds
Number i s a functi on of the chord
l ength of the fi n. So, because the
Reynol ds Number at the ti p i s l ower,
the ti p i s l ess effecti ve at creati ng l i ft
to restore the rocket to verti cal i f i t
shoul d be di sturbed (see Fi gure 2). To
compensate for thi s, youl l have to
i ncrease the si ze of the fi n, whi ch
defeats the purpose of tryi ng to make
the model as smal l as possi bl e to hel p
reduce both wei ght and profi l e drag.
Another probl em associ ated wi th
tapered fi n shapes i s that the ai rfoi l
shape typi cal l y changes too. Why i s
thi s? Because the thi ckness as a per-
cent of the chord l ength i ncreases
unless the fi n thi ckness get progres-
si vel y thi nner toward the ti p of the
Edge View
Side View
Cross sections
Typical Modelers Fin
Edge View
Side View
Cross sections
Expert Modelers Fin
These fi ns wi l l requi re the model be
further defl ected before the forces
acti ng on the fi ns are l arge enough to
cause them to be effecti ve i n strai ght-
eni ng out the fl i ght of the rocket. And
whi l e the rocket i s defl ected, the nose
and body tube are presenti ng a l ot of
si de area to the on- rushi ng ai rfl ow;
so the drag can be huge.
It woul d be better to use a shape
that i s more effecti ve at l ow Reynol ds
Numbers, and that i s easy to make
wi thout the hassl e of thi nni ng the
thi ckness of the fi n toward the ti p.
The better sol uti on woul d seem to
i ndi cate that a rectangul ar or paral -
l el ogram woul d yi el d l ower overal l
drag (see Fi gure 6).
Fig 5: Most modelers don't taper the
thickness of the fin; which changes
the airfoil along the span.
Edge View
Side View
Cross sections
Edge View
Side View
Cross sections
Fig 6: By using a fin with a constant
chord length (like these), the airfoil
stays constant over the entire fin.
Fig 7: Creating identical fins is easy
with constant chord lengths. Sand
the airfoil into all the fins at the same
time before cutting them apart.
These could possible be the
optimum fin shapes for
small rockets.
Figure 8: These could possibly be the optimum fin shapes for small rockets.
And there i s a huge advantage to
the rectangul ar shaped fi n; you can
cut and sand one l ong stri p of bal sa
wood (see fi gure 7). Then you can j ust
secti on i t i nto the i ndi vi dual fi ns. Al l
the fi ns now have the i denti cal ai rfoi l
shape! Thi s hel ps reduce the drag
forces on a fi n that mi ght otherwi se
be non- i denti cal wi th the others on
the model .
There you have i t. The best shape
for a smal l competi ti on model i s a
rectangl e or the paral l el ogram. And i t
j ust happens to be the easi est fi n to
Probl ems Reduce Benefi ts of El l i p-
ti cal Fi ns By Bob Parks. Journal of the
International Spacemodeling Society. Sep-
tember 1993 (Vol . 1, Number 5). pg 4.
fi n. Even peopl e that sand an ai rfoi l
i nto the fi n rarel y make the ti ps thi n
compared to the root to keep a con-
stant ai rfoi l (see Fi gure 5). Thi s i s
because they are already starting with
a thi n fi n, and i t woul d be di ffi cul t
and ti me consumi ng to sand the fi n
so thi n that you coul d see through i t.
Wel l ... thi s fatter ai rfoi l makes the
pr obl em associ at ed wi t h l ow
Reynol ds Numbers worse (refer agai n
to Fi gure 3)! The ti p of the fi n i s even
l ess effecti ve at creati ng a restori ng
force i f the model shoul d fl y at an
angl e- of- attack.
We shoul d now see that the el l i p-
ti cal fi n or the hi ghl y tapered fi n may
not be the opti mum for l owest drag.