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Wing Efficiency

As previously mentioned, the goal with boost gliders and rocket gliders is to achieve the
longest flight possible, which means achieving the longest glide possible. If the design
approach not to simply boost a low efficiency glider as high as possible, it will be
necessary to design a glider with as efficient a glide as possible. We think of this in terms
of sink rate, defined as the rate at which a glider descends in still air in which not other
forces, such as thermals are acting. Sink rate is measured in feet per second or meters per
In Appendix A, a mathematical method for determining sink rate and its derivation is
presented. The formulae for sink rate is:
sink rate = sqrt (2*W / (S * r) ) * (Cd / Cl**3/2)
In this formula, W is the mass of the glider, S is the area of the wing, r (rho) is the air
density, Cd is the drag coefficient and Cl is the lift coefficient. W/S is also the wing
loading expressed in ounces per square inch or grams per square centimeter. Cl**3/2/Cd
is a form of the wing efficiency factor, and is an indicator of the maximum lift that can be
developed for a minimum of drag. It is important to the performance of any aircraft,
including gliders, because the drag produced by the wing or induced drag is the vast
majority of the drag found on the aircraft. The efficiency factor can be used to compare
the efficiency of greatly differing types of wings. In the formulae for sink rate, the Cl is
raised to the 1.5 power, thus resulting in a ratio of Cl**3/2 / Cd. This ratio can also be
used as an efficiency factor; in fact, it is often referred to as the "Power Factor" [4], and
will be referred to as such in this report. The basic efficient factor Cl/Cd will simply be
called the Efficiency Factor.
So, we can use the sink rate formula to derive the wing efficiency or power factor of a
given wing by knowing the wing loading of the glider and the sink rate it exhibits. As
mentioned in the Introduction, we will use this wing efficiency factor to compare models
with wings with different airfoils. If we test a number of gliders at the same time, the air
density will be a constant, and so will make no difference.
Does the Reynolds number of a wing factor in to the efficiency of the wing? Absolutely.
By looking at a couple of examples, we will find that the efficiency factor for large
sailplanes is very different from that of a model sailplane.
The June/July 2000 issue of Quit Flight International, a British magazine of model
sailplanes and gliders describes the old Schweizer SGS 2-32, a two person full sized
sailplane. It has an area of 180 square feet and a flying weight of 1340 pounds or a wing
loading of 7.44 pounds per square foot. Its minimum sink rate is 2.4 feet per second at 52
miles per hour. If we use a standard sea level air density of 0.0023769 lbs sec**2/ft**4,
we can then calculate the wing power factor as described above to be about 33 for this

sailplane with a Reynolds number of more than 1 million. This for a sailplane that was
considered an efficient trainer, rather than a high performance contest ship.
In the April/May issue of QFI, a high performance contest glider called Scar is described.
It has a wing loading of 11.8 ounces per square foot, and a sink rate of approximately 1.5
feet per second. This results in a power factor of 16.6 for a model sailplane with a
Reynolds number of about 150,000.
A typical A engine boost glider weighs about 1/2 ounces with an area of 40 square inches
or a wing loading of 1.8 ounces per square foot. A sink rate of 2 feet per second would be
considered good, resulting in a wing power factor or efficiency factor of about 4.86 for a
glider having a Reynolds number of about 20,000. Even a sink rate of only 1 foot per
second would result in an efficiency factor of less than 10.
We can assume that each glider of very different size is developed to produce the best
glide possible. As the gliders get smaller and smaller, the wing loadings also get much
smaller, and the sink rates should also get lower, but as we have seen, they do not because
the wing efficiency or power factor goes down considerably. This is also true of exact
scale model sailplanes. So, data from actual gliders again tells us that the Reynolds
number has a big impact on wing efficiencies.
We can also see the fall off in airfoil efficiency in Figure 1. Figure 1 is a plot of Cl and
Cd data taken for a typical airfoil. These types of plots with Cl versus Cd are used to
design aircraft in various flight regimes.
In this plot, lift coefficient, Cl is on the left hand, vertical scale, while the drag
coefficient, Cd is on the horizontal scale. The multiple curves are for the lift to drag plots
at various Reynolds numbers. The left most and upper most curve is for a Reynolds
number of 120,000, while the curve at the lower right is for a Reynolds number of
21,000. This plot is for an airfoil typically used in model aircraft, and was developed for
the a wing that had a turbulator. A turbulator is usually (in models) a piece if string of
narrow tape attached to the wing parallel to the leading edge, just behind the leading
edge. It serves to cause the wing's boundary layer to become turbulent, thereby increasing
the efficiency of the airfoil.

Figure 1

A Cd - Cl Plot of a Typical Airfoil

In this plot we can see that the efficiency of the wing is much higher at the higher
Reynolds numbers. For example, at a Reynolds number of 150,000, the minimum drag
coefficient is .02 at a point where the lift coefficient is 0.6, resulting in an efficiency
defined by Cl / Cd of 30. At a Reynolds number of 21,000 (typical of boost gliders), the
minimum drag coefficient is .06 when the lift coefficient is 0.2, resulting in an efficiency
factor of 3.33. Note that for the purposes of this R&D, I have computed the Power Factor,
which is Cl**3/2 / Cd. At the minimum drag point for this airfoil in the curve for a
Reynolds number of 21,000, the Power Factor would only be 1.5, and that would be just
for the wing! If we take into account the drag for the whole glider, as we must for the
simple experiments in this project, the Power factor would be even lower.
The maximum Efficiency Factor for a wing (only) with this airfoil would be about 6, and
the Power Factor about 4.2. These maximum factors would occur in only a very narrow
operational range for a glider using this airfoil. That is, the angle of attack would change
just a little, and the efficiency of the wing would drop (along with the glider).
So, we see that typical airfoils used for large models and full size aircraft do not seem to
have very high efficiencies at the Reynolds numbers typical of boost gliders and rocket
gliders. Therefore, we cannot assume that the types of airfoils used in full size sailplanes
or even model sailplanes are the best types to use with any size

Research Methodology
The research methodology for this R&D project involves the use of three gliders about
the size used for typical A engine boost glide competition. Each glider has a wing with a
different airfoil. The gliders will be tossed by hand in straight and level flight, and timed
from a measured height to determine the sink rate for each glider. Each glider will be
tossed a number of times to eliminate any error caused by erratic tosses.
All expenses to perform this project are under $10.
All three gliders used for this project are very similar in design. All have similar wing
spans and wing planforms. All have similar size horizontal and vertical tail surfaces and
the same angle of incidence between the wing and horizontal tail surface. All have the
same distance between the wing and horizontal surface, so that the moment arm should
be the same. All have similar masses, and the slight differences can be taken into account
using the formula for sink rate.
The specific data for the three gliders are as follows:
Table 1
Glider ID
Glider A
thick wing
Glider B
curved plate
Glider C
flat plate

Glider Specifications

Wing span Wing Thickness Wing Area






0.485 (13.75 gm)




0.377 (10.70 gm)




0.383 (10.85 gm)

All gliders have a root chord of 3 inches, and a distance from the trailing edge of the
wing to the leading edge of the stabilizer of 4.5 inches. The incidence angle on each is 1.5
degrees. All are made of balsa, while the thick wing glider is built of balsa ribs and spars
with tissue covering that has been lightly finished with clear dope. The think wing glider
also has a spruce body rather than a balsa body. The thick wing glider has a horizontal
stabilizer of about 8 square inches, while the other two have stabilizers of about 9.6
square inches. All have vertical stabilizers of about 2.5 square inches.
The major difference between the three gliders is the airfoil. As shown in Figure 2, the
three airfoils differ greatly. The first airfoil, the "thick" airfoil is used for the wing of
Glider A. It has a flat bottom, a rounded leading edge and a thickness of 0.25 inches or
8.33%. The second airfoil, the "curved plate" airfoil is made of 1/32 inch balsa curved to
mimic the upper surface of the thick airfoil. The bottom surface is concave, because that
surface is the bottom of the balsa sheet used to create the upper surface. The curvature is
created using a small number of balsa ribs. The total thickness of the curved plate airfoil
is 0.25 inches, and the leading and trailing edges have been sanded. The third airfoil is a
flat piece of 1/16 inch balsa gently rounded at the leading and trailing edges.

Figure 2

Three experimental Airfoil Profiles

Figure 3 contains two pictures of the three gliders. From the left in both photos, the first
glider is the thick airfoil glider with multicolored wing identified as Glider A. The second
glider is Glider B with the curved plate airfoil, and the third glider is Glider C with the
flat plate airfoil.
The method for testing the gliders is to hand toss them in an open area and measure their
flight duration from a measured height above the ground, thereby determining their sink
rate. The ideal area for tests would be a large gymnasium or similar space, but none was
available for these tests, and so the tests were performed outdoors. In order to decrease
any effects from doing the tests outdoors, a large flat area in a park was selected, and tests
were performed in the early morning hours when the ground is relatively cool and will
not contribute any type of thermal activity. In addition, the tests were performed when the
air was as still as possible.

Figure 3 Three Test Gliders

In the first step, the gliders are trimmed for straight and level flight and to achieve
maximum flight times. After working with the gliders to insure reasonable trim, the
throwing height is measured. Each glider is hand tossed a number of times to get
consistent results. Each toss is timed for total flight duration. The gliders are tossed
forward from shoulder height in a level throw that will immediately impart glide velocity
to the glider without adding any altitude to the glider's position.
Because the best trim for each glider is unknown, even after initial trimming is performed
for each glider, the nose weight of each glider is reduce by a small fraction of a gram a
number of times during the tests. At no time was the nose weight of any of the gliders
reduced to the point that a stall would result.
Each toss is documented with comments that indicate if the toss was inconsistent or out
of level ("bad toss") or if any slight wind seemed to affect the glider's flight
("environmental factor"). The duration of the glide is noted in the log for each flight.

The tests were performed on a "cool" morning from 8 am to 9:30 am when the ambient
air temperature was about 80 degrees F. The wind speed was virtually zero. The altitude
of the park where these tests were performed is about 5700 feet.
The first tests were performed using a ladder that allowed a launch height of 84 inches.
After a few tests of each glider were performed, it was determined that this height was
insufficient to provide glides of sufficient duration such that the slight errors in timing
could be absorbed. A location allowing a launch height of 134 inches was then used.
Greater height would have been nice, but was unavailable.
Appendix C contains a table of all individual flights for the tests. for the purposes of
calculating the efficiencies of the wings, the best three flights of each glider not affected
by bad tosses or wind are being averaged in the summary table below.

Glider ID
Glider A
thick wing
Glider B
curved plate
Glider C
flat plate

Table 2 Summary Of Flight Times

Best Flt #1 Best Flt #2 Best Flt #3 Average Sink Rate
(seconds) (seconds) (seconds) (seconds) (ft/sec)















The sink rate equation can be slightly rearranged to identify the wing loading W/S:
sink rate = sqrt ( (W / S) * (2/ rho) ) * (Cd / Cl**3/2),
and using the average sink rate, determine the wing efficiency know as the power factor:
Cl**3/2 / Cd = sqrt ( (W / S) * (2/ rho) ) / average sink rate
Using a standard air density table [5], the air density at the test altitude is approximately
0.0019868 lb sec2 /ft4. The average sink rate and wing loading are used to calculate the
Power Factors as shown in the next table.

Glider ID
Glider A
thick wing
Glider B
curved plate
Glider C
flat plate

Table 3 Airfoil Efficiency

Sink rate
Wing Loading
Wing Power Factor









From this table, we see that the Power Factors calculated from the experimental data
indicate the more conventional wing with the "thick" airfoil is the least efficient of the
three. The flat plate airfoil is more efficient than the thick airfoil for gliders having a
Reynolds number around 20,000. The curved plate airfoil is significantly more efficient
than the thick airfoil. These results are discussed in the next section.

This R&D effort illustrates that for the size and type of glider used in the experiments, a
typical "thick" airfoiled wing with a flat bottom surface is probably not the most efficient.
The flat plate airfoil operates just as efficiently, and is easier to build. This, in part, helps
explain the good durations that simple boost gliders like the "Deltie" achieve.
This does not mean that the thick airfoil used in this R&D project is the most efficient
that can be used. A thinner wing section may be more efficient or minute differences in
the airfoil shape may improve efficiency considerably, but building such precise shapes in
small wings becomes very difficult.
The curved flat plate wing used in Glider B is almost twice as efficient as the glider with
the thick wing, as expressed by the Power Factor. The curved plate airfoil or a highly
"undercambered" thin wing as described in Appendix B, seems to be the the most
efficient for these small gliders. Gliders using this type of airfoil may be made even more
efficient by changing the maximum thickness of the wing or by experimenting with the
incidence angle between wing and horizontal tail surface.
There is a drawback to using these types of airfoils. The very thin sheeting used for
Glider B's curved plate airfoil (1/32 inch balsa) will not stand up to the rigors of a rocket
powered boost. I have tried a number of times with very inconsistent results. Other
building techniques are available, but have yet to be used extensively, and may effect
airfoil efficiency.
In addition, it should be noted that the curved plate wings may develop much higher drag
than the other airfoils during the high speed boost. This could limit the boost altitude and
therefore the total duration enough to negate any benefits of these airfoils.
Certainly, the results of this R&D project are encouraging, and warrant a "Phase 2" R&D
project of some type. Future experiments will include wings of different thicknesses,
gliders with different incidence angles, and curved plate airfoils of a construction that can
stand up to rocket powered boosts. This may lead to boost gliders and rocket gliders that
can attain significantly improved durations