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How can planes fly?

The phenomenon of lift can be produced in an ideal (non-viscous) fluid by the

addition of a free vortex (circulation) around a cylinder in a rectilinear flow stream.
This is known as the Magnus effect. It was mentioned by Newton in 1672 and was
investigated experimentally by Magnus in 1853. In a real (viscous) fluid, this effect
may be produced by a tennis ball, for example, by making it spin as it travels through
the air. Because the relative velocity between the air and the ball is zero at the
surface of the ball, the spin of the ball produces a circulation approximating a free
vortex outside the boundary layer. A top spin produces a downward force, and a back
spin upward force. Spin about a vertical axis produces a sideward force, known as a
"hook" or "slice" in golf. In the case of both the ideal fluid and the real fluid, a
circulation is necessary for the production of a lift force.

Fig. 1

The effect of back spin on a table tennis ball moving in a viscous


Lift is expressed as the product of a lift coefficient, the dynamic pressure of the free
stream, and the chord area of the lifting vane. The lift coefficient depends on a
number of parameters, including the shape and angle of attack of the vane, Reynolds
number, Mach number, aspect ratio, etc.
The lift force is generally defined by the equation
FLift = CL vs2 A
where CL is the lift coefficient; ( vs2/2) is the dynamic pressure of the free stream;
and A is the chord area of the lifting vane. Fig. 2 shows the flow lines past an airfoil at
a given angle of attack , with and without circulation. The circulation required to
swing the trailing stagnation streamline A tangent to the trailing edge of the airfoil is
the desired quantity. The addition of circulation results in a higher velocity and lower
pressure over the upper surface and a lower velocity and higher pressure over the
lower surface airfoil.


A simple model relates the lift coefficient to the angle of attack for an airfoil in an ideal
fluid when the airfoil thickness and camber approach zero (flat plate)
CL = 2 sino
for small angles of attack. The angle o is the difference between the actual angle of
attack and the angle of attack for which the lift is zero. For a flat plate and
symmetrical airfoils without 'camber (curvature), o is the same as , since lift is zero
for zero angle of attack.


Fig. 2

Ideal fluid passing an airfoil. (a) Without circulation. No lift or drag.

(b) With circulation lift but no drag. Circulation added to flow pattern
in (a) to produce flow pattern in (b).

Thus, ideal flow theory predicts actual lift performance amazingly well but gives zero
drag in an infinite fluid for steady flow. An airfoil in a real fluid must create its own
circulation, or vortex field, just as the spinning table tennis ball, in order to experience
lift. The starting vortex is indicated in Fig. 3. As the motion begins, it is very slow and
approaches that of irrotational flow in an ideal fluid. The fluid particles passing around
the trailing edge must move very rapidly and must approach a stagnation condition at
A. But because of the viscosity of the fluid, they have less velocity than if the fluid
were ideal, and the fluid separates from the trailing edge of the airfoil in the form of a
vortex Fig. 3b. As this vortex passes from the airfoil, an opposing reaction starts a
counter circulation opposite in direction to that of the trailing vortex. It is this induced
counter circulation that produces lift.




counter circulation

Fig. 3



Starting vortex (a) at the beginning of motion and (b) after vortex

For a finite lifting vane (the preceding discussion applies vane of infinite span),
additional explanations are necessary, since a vortex cannot terminate within the
fluid. The lift of a finite wing is zero at its tips, and thus the circulation would appear to
be there also, so that the vortex system cannot extend out to infinity. A closed vortex
loop is necessary, and this loop consists of tip vortices that trail behind the airfoil
back to the starting vortex (Fig. 4). The starting vortex degenerates to zero with time
because of viscous dissipation, and the vortex pattern is thus more horseshoe
shaped than rectangular or toroidal. The tip vortices have low-pressure cores, and for
ship propellers they are seen as threadlike cavities in the shape of helixes peeling off
the blade tips. Under certain conditions they may be observed as vapour trails behind
aircraft flying at high altitudes. Air within the vortex core expands and cools, and
vapours condense to become visible. For an airfoil of finite span, the tip vortices
produce a downward wash.
Circulation around
an airfoil

Trailing tip vortices

Trailing tip vortices

Fig. 4

Closed loop vortex pattern for a finite wing.

Lift (CL) and drag (CD) data can be plotted against the angle of attack (Fig. 5). A
desirable characteristic of an airfoil is a high lift to drag ratio. In Fig. 5b, the maximum
value of this ratio is found by finding the tangent to the curve through the origin that
has the largest slope. This is the point A in Fig. 5b. Fig. 5 shows that the attack angle
cant be to large, otherwise a stall condition is reached and lift is no longer provided
by the circulation around the airfoil.







Angle of attack
Fig. 5


Aspect ratio:
span / chord


Airfoil characteristics. (a) and (b)Typical lift and drag coefficients. (c)
Effect of Reynolds number on lift coefficient and stall angle. (d) Effect
of airfoil aspect ratio.

Lift of airfoils may be calculated or they may be measured directly in a wind tunnel by
the integration of the pressures over the airfoil section. The algebraic difference
between the predominantly negative
pressure on the top surface of the foil and the predominantly positive pressure on the
bottom surface will result in a net force normal to the chord of the airfoil. As a first
approximation, the component of this force normal to the approaching free stream is
the net lift on the airfoil.
If px is the surface pressure at a distance x from the leading edge of an airfoil of
chord length C, pS is the free stream pressure, and vS is the free stream velocity of
approach, then the surface pressures may be expressed as a dimensionless
pressure coefficient
Cp = (px pS) / (1/2 vS2)
The variation of Cp over an airfoil (NACA 0015: symmetrical foil with maximum
thickness 15% of chord length) in a small wind tunnel is shown in Fig. 6. The average
height between the two curves in Fig. 6 is called the normal force coefficient CN and
is related to the angle of attack by
CL ~ CN cos
For the data in given in Fig. 6, CL = 0.85 and from the equation CL = 2 sin = 0.87.
Thus, calculations from an ideal fluid theory agree well with measured values of lift.
According to the Bernoulli equation, the maximum pressure from the free stream
value ps is the dynamics pressure. Thus, at a stagnation point on an airfoil, the max
value of px pS = vS2 and the maximum pressure coefficient is Cp = 1.


Most of the lift is generated by the drop in pressure

Over the upper front surface of the airfoil

Pressure on upper surface
Pressure on lower surface


Fig. 6












Dimensionless plot of measured pressure coefficient over an NACA

0015 airfoil at an attack angle of 8 with Reynolds number ~ 6104.

The low pressures indicated in Fig. 6 for the front upper surface provide most of the
lift for this airfoil. Associated with these low pressures are high velocities, so that at
high subsonic free stream velocities, local velocities along the foil surface may
become supersonic and shocks may affect the flow.
The total drag on an aircraft is due to pressure differences and viscous shear and
the drag force acts in a direction parallel and opposite to the direction of motion of the
Viscous shear forces may play an important role in the development of the boundary
layer and influencing the point of separation of the boundary layer from the surface of
the body. This affects the size of the pressure differences and pressure drag. This
skin friction is the force that the air exerts on a surface in the direction of flow and is
a direct consequence of momentum transfer through the boundary layer.
The pressure differences around the aircraft, arise from a force known as the form
drag and is a consequence of the acceleration of the fluid through which the aircraft
is moving. It is very depend upon the shape and orientation of an object.
Fdrag = C vS2 A
C is the drag coefficient (for skin friction or other forms), vS2 is the dynamic
pressure of the free stream and A is the projected frontal area, or area being sheared
for pure skin friction, or the chord area for lifting vanes.
Reference: Essentials of Engineering Fluid Mechanics (3rd Ed) Reuben M. Olson