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In Pursuit of

Flow Control
Those protuberances that look like
they don’t belong

By Ed Kolano

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hey’re never on the first sketch of a new

T airplane design. They’re almost never on

the prototype airplane. But somewhere be-
tween concept and production, they appear. I’m
talking about those protuberances that look like
they don’t belong. Vortex generators, cuffs, fences,
stall strips, and a handful of other bumps, lumps,
fins, and tabs adorn some of the most popular tra-
ditional airplanes, and they’re showing up on the
light-sport aircraft (LSA) fleet as well.

I suppose some of these protuberances might be Same for vortices. Like Dorothy, it’s doubtful anyone’s
appreciated as style enhancements, but that’s in the had a good experience with a tornado. Although soaring
beholder’s eye. It’s quite doubtful the airplane designer pilots might benefit from secondary effects of mountain
was beholding any aesthetic inclinations when these rotors, those horizontal vortices are generally unfriendly
apparent add-on devices were included. They were added toward aircraft. Well, it turns out that airplanes create
on, nevertheless, and their presence implies they improve their own vortices. Sometime after that whole fire thing,
some undesirable aerodynamic behavior of the airplane. aerodynamicists linked vortex production to lift and drag,
Should you be concerned because the airplane you’re and they’ve been toiling to increase one and decrease the
about to climb aboard has one or more of these refinements? other ever since. If your airport serves large aircraft, you’ve
Probably not. Remember, if these protuberances didn’t probably spent some time—in three-minute blocks—hold-
make something better, they wouldn’t be there. In fact, ing short, because the tower cited wake turbulence from
these doodads might be the reason the company can a departing large airplane. Wake turbulence is primarily
boast about its airplane’s carefree handling qualities. the trailing vortices caused by that heavy plane generat-
Typically, these design add-ons are installed to improve ing the lift it needed to fly away. These localized tornados
slow-speed characteristics. They might be incorporated to can be powerful, because that swirling air contains a lot of
achieve a slower minimum speed, to lower stall speed, or energy. VGs are designed to create vortices for the purpose
to delay the degradation of control authority that usually of using that energy.
accompanies slower flight. It’s all about flow control. To understand how VGs work, let’s hearken back to that
elementary lift diagram we’ve all seen. You know, the one
Vortex Generators—Auntie Em, It’s a Twister with the airflow streamlines above and below the wing? As
You have to like the straightforward simplicity of a de- the wing’s angle of attack (AOA) increases, the flow over
vice whose name declares its purpose. Vortex generators the top of the wing has to make an increasingly sharper
(VGs) generate vortices. Okay, there’s a little more to the turn to remain attached. Eventually the AOA becomes too
process than that. Remember when fire was discovered? steep, the flow over the top of the wing separates, and lift
It was bad news. It was too hot; it was destructive; it was decreases—that is, the wing stalls. For most wings, the
life-threatening. Then some glass-half-full-thinking folks separation begins at the trailing edge and moves progres-
figured out a way to use fire for warmth and cooking and sively forward as AOA increases. This separation occurs
eventually to push pistons down a cylinder. because the trailing edge vortex causes another vortex far-


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could be the designer intentionally
limited the elevator authority for a
Ever flown an airplane that drops
a wing as it approaches stall speed?
Some planes always drop the same
wing. In other planes, the drop seems
to be random or sensitive to how close
to balanced flight (centered slip-skid
ball) you fly. VGs might help that sit-
uation by providing more consistent
flow over the wing.
Laminar Turbulent Maybe that wing drops because
boundary boundary Eddies the airplane just runs out of lateral
Streamlines layer layer in wake control authority. It’s possible that a
plane can roll off even with full later-
Typical aerodynamic flow patterns. Air flowing over an airplane wing experiences the same effects as the al stick applied at a speed faster than
air flowing over the obstacle in this illustration. Over the years, a number of design add-ons have been stall speed. If the reason is separation
developed to improve flow control at lower speeds. This article will explore the use of several of these over the ailerons, VGs placed forward
devices. (Reproduced from Aerodynamics) of the ailerons might improve this
It’s all about flow control. You may
ther forward along the wing’s upper the separation “bubble” that’s try- have seen VGs attached to the verti-
surface, and that secondary vortex ing to work its way forward. Because cal stabilizer to help provide higher
opposes the lift-producing streamline the air is tripped into turbulent flow, energy air over the rudder. Why not?
flow moving aft. there is increased drag. Considering The vertical fin is just another wing.
Too deep? How’s this—it’s a battle the overall benefit of the VG-ener- By now, you’ve probably conjured
of energy. At lower AOA, the stream- gized air, this minimal drag increase a mental image of the typical vortex
line air flowing aft wins the battle is a small price to pay. generator. They look like little metal
and remains attached, and the wing VGs placed on the lower surface rectangles set perpendicular to the
produces lift. At higher AOAs, the of the horizontal tail work the same
streamline air flowing aft loses the way as they do on the upper surface
battle and gets forced away from the of the wing. If the tail’s job is to lift
wing surface, and lift is lost. downward to pitch the airplane nose-
One way to come to the aid of the up, VGs might increase an airplane’s
streamline flow is to add energy to it. nose-up pitching authority. Before
VGs do this by creating little cyclones you slap a bunch of VGs here, you
of high-energy air. This turbulent air should consider whether you really
has more energy to push back against want extra nose-up pitch control. It

Should you be concerned because the

airplane you’re about to climb aboard has
one or more of these refinements?
Probably not. Remember, if these
The pattern of a fluid flowing over an airfoil
protuberances didn’t make something is depicted in these two illustrations. Top, the
airfoil is positioned at a low angle of attack;
better, they wouldn’t be there. bottom, the airfoil is positioned in a high angle
of attack, to the point where the airfoil (wing)
stalled. (Reproduced from Principles of Airfoil
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surface and at an angle to the airflow.
Sometimes they’re parallel to each
other, but sometimes they’re attached believe the presence of smashed in-
as pairs of trailing-edge-left/trail- sects on a wing’s leading edge could the tip. This is one way to make sure
ing-edge-right sets. It all depends on make the difference between an air- your ailerons continue to function
what the designer wants to achieve. plane meeting the FAR 23 require- properly all the way down to stall
The parallel, or co-rotating, VGs can ments and failing to do so? Bugs on, speed. In the past, some airplane
influence the overall flow over the it passed; clean wing, it failed. Unfor- manufacturers tailored the length of
wing. One example might be to in- tunately, the insects could not be cer- individual stall strips during produc-
fluence the flow spanwise to help en- tified, so the airplane manufacturer tion flight-testing to ensure the air-
sure the inboard portion of the wing had to resort to a more robust solu- plane didn’t drop a wing at stall.
stalls before the tip. The counter-ro- tion—VGs.
tating VGs are intended to introduce
turbulence (energy), and you’re likely Making Air Bumpy
to see this arrangement ahead of con- Sometimes it’s a good idea to inten-
trol surfaces. tionally trip the boundary layer. You’ve
But who says they have to be rect- probably seen stall strips attached
angular pieces of metal? Have you to the leading edge of the wings on
ever seen a strip of nonskid surface on some airplanes. These strips are usu-
a wing? How about a length of tape ally triangular and typically located
near the leading edge? Those triangu- near the wing root. They have sharp
lar T-sections on the Glastar family of leading edges, because their job is to VGs create mini-vortices (mini-tornadoes) that
airplanes? All vortex generators. upset the nice, smooth flow over the delay separation of the airflow from the wing.
Bugs, or any leading-edge contami- inboard section of the wing to help Credit: (Reproduced with permission from The
nation, are also little VGs. Would you ensure the root section stalls before Design of the Aeroplane, by Darrol Stinton)

A row of vortex generators (VGs) on this vintage J-3 Cub improved slow flight capabilities significantly. Owner George Karamitis said stall speed dropped
from 38 mph to 23 mph, “making the airplane even more fun to fly at slow speeds,” he added. VGs are also used on horizontal and vertical stabilizers on the
empennage—again for the purpose of keeping airflow attached Inset: Typically, VGs are set at angles to one another to create mini-vortices (see drawing)
that keep the airflow attached to the wing, thus making ailerons or flaps more effective. (Photos by Jim Koepnick)


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The stall strip is attached spanwise
to the wing leading edge. At higher feting. Of course, to take advantage
AOAs, that sharp leading edge pro- of this feature requires a particular
trudes into the flow on its way to the geometric relationship between the
top of the wing, causing flow sepa- wing and the horizontal tail. In some
ration and loss of lift downstream airplanes this buffeting occurs natu-
of the strip. This might sound like rally without the need for strips. In
a contradiction, because VGs also
cause turbulent flow. The VGs cre-
ate little tornadoes that are parallel Sometimes it’s
to the wing upper surface. Visualize
the vortex created by a VG as a he- a good idea to
lical airflow—a cone of swirling air
lying on its side, with the tip of the intentionally
cone attached to the VG. Those swirls trip the
bring high-energy air down close to
Stall strips, like those used here on the Flight the wing’s upper surface, helping to boundary layer.
Design CT, are designed to trip the boundary keep the flow attached and delaying
layer of air flowing over the wing in the area just flow separation.
aft of the stall strip to make sure that the wing Another reason for locating the others, like some T-tails, the horizon-
stalls first near the root, thereby maintaining the stall strips inboard is to cause a more tal tail would remain above the tur-
effectiveness of the ailerons. Stall strips can also pronounced stall warning. If the bulent flow whether or not stall strips
offer a more advanced stall warning because the strips are placed correctly, the turbu- are installed.
turbulent air they create affects the tail surfaces, lent air they trigger impinges on the Another method of ensuring the
causing the control stick or yoke to buffet and horizontal tail. You feel this in the wing stalls at its root first is to twist
announce the impending stall. form of airframe or control stick buf- the wing. Washout is the term that

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even an uncontrollable—pitch-up.
Not good.
Russian designers of early MiG
the canard designs we fly have rear- fighters minimized this spanwise flow
describes wing twist where the tip by incorporating fences on the wing’s
mounted engines and pusher propel-
has a lower incidence angle than the upper surface. Perhaps you’ve seen
lers, the wing sweep is a way to get
root. The tip is at a lower relative AOA these vertical blades running chord-
the vertical tail (winglets, in this case)
than the root, so it remains flying wise. They present a physical barrier
far enough aft to provide directional
even as the root stalls. The problem is to the air flowing outboard, forcing
stability and control.
it’s a tad more difficult to incorporate it to flow aft, parallel to the fuselage.
As the air flows over a swept wing
wing twist than add stall strips for an Air spilling over the fence becomes a
it tends to flow outboard, particular-
airplane that’s already built. vortex, which energizes the air near
ly at higher AOA. This flow is gen-
erally undesirable, because it can re- the wing surface.
Spanwise Flow sult in low-energy air near the wing
Although none of the currently ap- tip. Separated airflow is more likely
proved special LSA (S-LSA) have ca- with lower energy air, and that could
nards, who’s to say future designs mean the tips would stall before the
won’t? Canard designs like the Long- inboard wing section. This is a bad
EZ, Cozy, and Velocity have swept situation. If the stall progresses from
wings. While this looks really cool, tip toward the root, you’ll probably
it’s not for the same reason that jet lose aileron effectiveness, so there
fighters have swept wings. Fighter goes your primary roll control. As Fences (small, vertical blades) are physical barriers
wings are swept for drag reduction the tips of a swept-wing aircraft stall, that force air to flow aft, parallel to the fuselage.
and compressibility reasons during the center of lift moves forward, and Air spilling over a fence becomes a vortex, which
high-speed flight. Because most of that can result in an unwanted—or energizes the air near the wing surface.


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A more elegant solution is the
vortilon. Vortilons are little blades
mounted on the lower section of the
swept wing’s leading edge. They’re
oriented the same way a fence would
be—parallel to the airplane’s longi-
tudinal (nose-to-tail) axis. At high
AOA, spanwise flow encounters the
vortilon. The resulting vortex flows
aft, just as it does in the case of the
VGs. You already know how this lit-
tle tornado energizes the air and de-
lays flow separation, but its presence
also establishes an invisible fence
that further deters spanwise flow.
Neat, huh? Another type of vortilon, shown here on a VariViggen. It also acts similar to a fence, pushing air aft and
delaying separation. (Bonnie Kratz)
Other Gizmos, Doodads,
and Gadgets effectiveness, but there’s another ing-edge notch. Oh, and the dog-
Leading-edge cuffs are those protrud- pronounced effect of cuffs: The in- tooth. And strakes. And leading-edge
ing leading-edge sections sometimes board edge of the cuff is blunt. It extensions. And dorsal fins and ven-
installed on the outboard wing sec- does not fair into the wing leading tral fins. And winglets. And suction
tion. They blend seamlessly to the edge. This abrupt geometric discon- and blown wings and slats and slots
upper and lower wing surfaces, but tinuity—you guessed it—creates a and cranked wings and raked wing
their leading-edge shape is different vortex with all the energy-adding, tips. And I haven’t even mentioned
from the rest of the wing. Their lead- spanwise-flow-attenuating features tabs, but just look at all the devices
ing edge is generally drooped below already mentioned. invented to control the flow of air
the wing’s leading edge, providing There you have it. All the devices over the lifting surfaces of an air-
the same lower AOA effect as wash- ever invented to control airflow over plane. Flow control must be pretty
out. This is good news for aileron a wing or a tail. Except for the lead- important.

Vortilons are small, blade-like devices positioned

on the lower surface of a swept wing just below
the leading edge, as shown on this Long-EZ. They
act like fences and at higher angles of attack
force air aft, again delaying separation.

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