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High Speed Flight – Boundary Layer

in Aerodynamics

The viscous nature of airflow reduces the local velocities on a surface and is responsible for skin friction. As discussed earlier in the chapter, the layer of air over the wing’s surface that is slowed down or stopped by viscosity, is the boundary layer. There are two different types of boundary layer flow: laminar and turbulent.

Laminar Boundary Layer Flow

The laminar boundary layer is a very smooth flow, while the turbulent boundary layer contains swirls or “eddies.” The laminar flow creates less skin friction drag than the turbulent flow, but is less stable. Boundary layer flow over a wing surface begins as a smooth laminar flow. As the flow continues back from the leading edge, the laminar boundary layer increases in thickness.

Turbulent Boundary Layer Flow

At some distance back from the leading edge, the smooth laminar flow breaks down and transitions to a turbulent flow. From a drag standpoint, it is advisable to have the transition from laminar to turbulent flow as far aft on the wing as possible, or have a large amount of the wing surface within the laminar portion of the boundary layer. The low energy laminar flow, however, tends to break down more suddenly than the turbulent layer.

Boundary Layer Separation

Another phenomenon associated with viscous flow is separation. Separation occurs when the airflow breaks away from an airfoil. The natural progression is from laminar boundary layer to turbulent boundary layer and then to airflow separation. Airflow separation produces high drag and ultimately destroys lift. The boundary layer separation point moves forward on the wing as the AOA is increased. [Figure 4-58]

Figure 4-58. Boundary layer.
Figure 4-58. Boundary layer.

Vortex generators are used to delay or prevent shock wave induced boundary layer separation encountered in transonic flight. They are small low aspect ratio airfoils placed at a 12° to 15° AOA to the airstream. Usually spaced a few inches apart along the wing ahead of the ailerons or other control surfaces, vortex generators create a vortex which mixes the boundary airflow with the high energy airflow just above the surface. This produces higher surface velocities and increases the energy of the boundary layer. Thus, a stronger shock wave is necessary to produce airflow separation.

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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