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Ground Effect (Part One)

in Aerodynamics

It is possible to fly an aircraft just clear of the ground (or water) at a slightly slower airspeed than that required to sustain level flight at higher altitudes. This is the result of a phenomenon better known of than understood even by some experienced pilots.

When an aircraft in flight comes within several feet of the surface, ground or water, a change occurs in the three-dimensional flow pattern around the aircraft because the vertical component of the airflow around the wing is restricted by the surface. This alters the wing’s upwash, downwash, and wingtip vortices. [Figure 4-13] Ground effect, then, is due to the interference of the ground (or water) surface with the airflow patterns about the aircraft in flight.

Figure 4-13. Ground effect changes airflow.

Figure 4-13. Ground effect changes airflow.

While the aerodynamic characteristics of the tail surfaces and the fuselage are altered by ground effect, the principal effects due to proximity of the ground are the changes in the aerodynamic characteristics of the wing. As the wing encounters ground effect and is maintained at a constant lift coefficient, there is consequent reduction in the upwash, downwash, and wingtip vortices.

Induced drag is a result of the airfoil’s work of sustaining the aircraft, and a wing or rotor lifts the aircraft simply by accelerating a mass of air downward. It is true that reduced pressure on top of an airfoil is essential to lift, but that is only one of the things contributing to the overall effect of pushing an air mass downward. The more downwash there is, the harder the wing pushes the mass of air down. At high angles of attack, the amount of induced drag is high; since this corresponds to lower airspeeds in actual flight, it can be said that induced drag predominates at low speed.

However, the reduction of the wingtip vortices due to ground effect alters the spanwise lift distribution and reduces the induced AOA and induced drag. Therefore, the wing will require a lower AOA in ground effect to produce the same CL. If a constant AOA is maintained, an increase in CL results. [Figure 4-14]

Figure 4-14. Ground effect changes drag and lift.

Figure 4-14. Ground effect changes drag and lift.

51UFncHi9pL._SX390_BO1,204,203,200_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.


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