Bjorn’s Corner: Aircraft lift, Part 3

By Bjorn Fehrm

April 06, 2018, ©. Leeham News: In the last Corner, we discussed the pressure distribution of an aircraft’s wing when producing lift. This was with a conventional airfoil (though of the more laminar flow type).

Now we continue by looking at how a modern airliner wing achieves lift by using a “supercritical” airfoil.

Figure 1. The airliner using the wing profile we study, the Emb145. Source: Embraer.

Airliner airfoils

The wing profile we studied in the last Corner works well to about Mach 0.6. At higher speeds, the peaky suction pressure distribution on the top of the wing causes a large speed-up of the flow into a supersonic flow. As the flow goes back to subsonic flow on the back of the profile, it will be through the strong normal shock wave we discussed in aircraft drag reduction Corners.

To fly at the cruise speeds of today’s airliners (M0.75-0.85) we need wing profiles which speed up the air less on the topside of the airfoil. Such airfoils are called “supercritical” airfoils as they keep the speed of the air on the top side close to the critical Mach for supersonic flow (still supersonic flow, but not as deep supersonic as on a conventional airfoil).

Figure 2 shows such an airfoil which was developed by Embraer for its first Jet airliner, the Emb145.

Figure 2. Conventional and Supercritical airfoil for the Emb145. Source: Embraer.

Conventional airfoil

The blue wing profile and pressure curves are for a conventional NACA 23012 airfoil flying at M0.75 and the red the airfoil developed by Embraer for the ERJ145.

As we learned in the first Corner on lift, the pressure around a wing and its airflow speeds are related. Low pressure = high airflow speed. This is true also for compressible flow, tough Bernoulli’s theorem, which defines the mathematical relationship between the pressure and the speed, is not exact at these speeds.

As in the last Corner, the pressure scale (Cp) is inverse. The top of the scale is high suction (Cp is – 1.4), lifting the wing’s top surface and the bottom (Cp 0.8) a high static pressure, pushing on the wing’s bottom surface.

For the conventional wing, the higher blue curve is how the pressure changes on the wing’s top side. At first, the flow is slowed down when it hits the wing’s nose (slowing flow means the pressure goes higher than the surrounding air. It’s at Cp=0.5 at first).

The flow starts curving around the top of the nose, and as it’s curving around a convex surface the flow’s speed increases. The pressure drops all the way to -1.1. This suction peak creates a lot of lift but also a fast supersonic flow (Past Cp = -0.6 the flow is supersonic).

At 40% of the wing profile, the flow returns to subsonic through a strong direct shock. As we learned in the drag Corners, this increases the pressure and the strong shock causes boundary layer separation. We have high transonic drag.

This is what happened to the P-51 Mustang during WW2. It has a wing profile of the type we discussed in the last Corner. When diving to increase speed, the Mustang gets strong Supersonic flow on the wing’s top side and the increased drag keeps it from flying faster.

As we discussed in the drag Corners, the fully conventional airfoils of the Spitfire and Messerschmitt were even worse. The laminar flow airfoil of the Mustang didn’t create a lot of laminar flow, but its form kept the suction peak on the top side lower and by it the transonic drag lower than the other WW2 fighters.

Supercritical airfoil

To come to an even better wing profile than the Mustang’s, Richard Withcomb of NASA experimented with wing profiles with a lower suction peak. He could achieve this if he formed the airfoil with a less curved top side (the red airfoil in Figure 2. The form now resembles a whale, my comment).

The top red pressure curve for the wing’s top side now passes lightly into a supersonic flow (Cp = -0.6) and passes back to subsonic flow at 70% of the profile through a weak shock, which keeps the boundary layer intact.

The problem was, the lower transonic drag didn’t come for free. The lower suction meant lower lift of the airfoil for the same forward speed of the aircraft. To regain lift, the bottom of the airfoil was given a concave finish, slowing the airflow and pushing it down. This increased the bottom pressure of the wing (bottom red curve past 70% of the profile), by it increasing lift.

The flat top suction pressure and the high rear pressure on the bottom surface of the wing, have given these airfoils the nicknames “flat rooftop” or “back-loaded” airfoils.

Changed design of airfoils

The early methods of designing airfoils were based on shaping airfoils and measuring their lift, drag and tipping moment in wind tunnels. With the introduction of Computerized CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics), one could do it the other way.

The designer decided a desired pressure distribution (and by it the airflow speeds around the airfoil). The computer would then calculate the airfoil shape which would produce this pressure profile.

This is the way the Embraer designers developed the Emb145 airfoil and wing. In the next Corner, we shall look at how we master the desire of the wing to tip over backward.

10 Comments on “Bjorn’s Corner: Aircraft lift, Part 3

  1. Good post Bjorn.

    As in all things concerning airplanes, there is always a trade off. Although the aerodynamics team loved supercritical airfoils due to the improved transonic performance, the structures folks were not so enthusiastic.

    The aft camber shifted the center of pressure aft relative to the spar box. This increased torsion loads into the spar box and made the retracted flap loads increase. Structure weights needed to increase to cope with these increased loads, negating a portion of the lower drag.

    Of course, wing thickness could be increased due to the weaker shock, alleviating part of the structural weight increase.

    Incorporating supercritical airfoils made a very interesting design trade study.

    • Thanks Bob,

      didn’t know this. Appreciate you chipping in.

  2. It says, “Alpha=0 deg” I’d be curious what the pressure distribution looks like for the Alpha in cruise. I’d also be curious what the distribution looks like at the inner third of the wing at cruise, which is wider and looks like a higher alpha on jets like the 777, 787, and A380.

    And, never having taken an aero engineering class, curious what the distribution on a wing looks like at rotation, any upward pressure on the bottom of the wing?

    What’s the pressure distribution look like with the flaps down in the picture?

  3. It is also interesting to see the flow and losses at the wing to body fairings and at the wingtips with 3D flow. It seems the wing to body fairings are getting simpler on modern aircrafts, is that due to George S. Schairer is retired including his index finger modifying Boeing wing tunnel models, longer wingspans or that smaller and simpler wing to body fairings works as well?

    • You need to look at the 787 fairing more closely – it is not simple and small as you are suggesting.

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