In a wind tunnel or in flight, an airfoil is simply a streamlined object inserted into a moving stream of air. If the airfoil profile were in the shape of a teardrop, the speed and the pressure changes of the air passing over the top and bottom would be the same on both sides. But if the teardrop shaped airfoil were cut in half lengthwise, a form resembling the basic airfoil (wing) section would result. If the airfoil were then inclined so the airflow strikes it at an angle (angle of attack), the air molecules moving over the upper surface would be forced to move faster than would the molecules moving along the bottom of the airfoil, since the upper molecules must travel a greater distance due to the curvature of the upper surface. This increased velocity reduces the pressure above the airfoil.
Bernoulli’s principle of pressure by itself does not explain the distribution of pressure over the upper surface of the airfoil. A discussion of the influence of momentum of the air as it flows in various curved paths near the airfoil will be presented. [Figure 2-7] Momentum is the resistance a moving body offers to having its direction or amount of motion changed. When a body is forced to move in a circular path, it offers resistance in the direction away from the center of the curved path. This is “centrifugal force.” While the particles of air move in the curved path AB, centrifugal force tends to throw them in the direction of the arrows between A and B and hence, causes the air to exert more than normal pressure on the leading edge of the airfoil. But after the air particles pass B (the point of reversal of the curvature of the path) the centrifugal force tends to throw them in the direction of the arrows between B and C (causing reduced pressure on the airfoil). This effect is held until the particles reach C, the second point of reversal of curvature of the airflow. Again the centrifugal force is reversed and the particles may even tend to give slightly more than normal pressure on the trailing edge of the airfoil, as indicated by the short arrows between C and D.
Therefore, the air pressure on the upper surface of the airfoil is distributed so that the pressure is much greater on the leading edge than the surrounding atmospheric pressure, causing strong resistance to forward motion; but the air pressure is less than surrounding atmospheric pressure over a large portion of the top surface (B to C).
As seen in the application of Bernoulli’s theorem to a venturi, the speedup of air on the top of an airfoil produces a drop in pressure. This lowered pressure is a component of total lift. It is a mistake, however, to assume that the pressure difference between the upper and lower surface of a wing alone accounts for the total lift force produced.
One must also bear in mind that associated with the lowered pressure is downwash; a downward backward flow from the top surface of the wing. As already seen from previous discussions relative to the dynamic action of the air as it strikes the lower surface of the wing, the reaction of this downward backward flow results in an upward forward force on the wing. This same reaction applies to the flow of air over the top of the airfoil as well as to the bottom, and Newton’s third law is again in the picture.
In the section dealing with Newton’s laws as they apply to lift, it has already been discussed how a certain amount of lift is generated by pressure conditions underneath the wing. Because of the manner in which air flows underneath the wing, a positive pressure results, particularly at higher angles of attack. But there is another aspect to this airflow that must be considered. At a point close to the leading edge, the airflow is virtually stopped (stagnation point) and then gradually increases speed. At some point near the trailing edge, it has again reached a velocity equal to that on the upper surface. In conformance with Bernoulli’s principles, where the airflow was slowed beneath the wing, a positive upward pressure was created against the wing; i.e., as the fluid speed decreases, the pressure must increase. In essence, this simply “accentuates the positive” since it increases the pressure differential between the upper and lower surface of the airfoil, and therefore increases total lift over that which would have resulted had there been no increase of pressure at the lower surface. Both Bernoulli’s principle and Newton’s laws are in operation whenever lift is being generated by an airfoil.
Fluid flow or airflow then, is the basis for flight in airplanes, and is a product of the velocity of the airplane. The velocity of the airplane is very important to the pilot since it affects the lift and drag forces of the airplane. The pilot uses the velocity (airspeed) to fly at a minimum glide angle, at maximum endurance, and for a number of other flight maneuvers. Airspeed is the velocity of the airplane relative to the air mass through which it is flying.
Learn more about airplane aerodynamics with the Illustrated Guide to Aerodynamics. This unique introductory guide, which sold more than 20,000 copies in its first edition, proves that the principles of flight can be easy to understand, even fascinating, to pilots and technicians who want to know how and why an aircraft behaves as it does.