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High Speed Flight – Subsonic Versus Supersonic Flow

in Aerodynamics

In subsonic aerodynamics, the theory of lift is based upon the forces generated on a body and a moving gas (air) in which it is immersed. At speeds of approximately 260 knots, air can be considered incompressible in that, at a fixed altitude, its density remains nearly constant while its pressure varies. Under this assumption, air acts the same as water and is classified as a fluid. Subsonic aerodynamic theory also assumes the effects of viscosity (the property of a fluid that tends to prevent motion of one part of the fluid with respect to another) are negligible, and classifies air as an ideal fluid, conforming to the principles of ideal-fluid aerodynamics such as continuity, Bernoulli’s principle, and circulation.


In reality, air is compressible and viscous. While the effects of these properties are negligible at low speeds, compressibility effects in particular become increasingly important as speed increases. Compressibility (and to a lesser extent viscosity) is of paramount importance at speeds approaching the speed of sound. In these speed ranges, compressibility causes a change in the density of the air around an aircraft.

During flight, a wing produces lift by accelerating the airflow over the upper surface. This accelerated air can, and does, reach sonic speeds even though the aircraft itself may be flying subsonic. At some extreme AOAs, in some aircraft, the speed of the air over the top surface of the wing may be double the aircraft’s speed. It is therefore entirely possible to have both supersonic and subsonic airflow on an aircraft at the same time. When flow velocities reach sonic speeds at some location on an aircraft (such as the area of maximum camber on the wing), further acceleration results in the onset of compressibility effects such as shock wave formation, drag increase, buffeting, stability, and control difficulties. Subsonic flow principles are invalid at all speeds above this point. [Figure 4-56]

Figure 4-56. Wing airflow.

Figure 4-56. Wing airflow.

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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