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High Speed Flight – Mach Number Versus Airspeed

in Aerodynamics

It is important to understand how airspeed varies with Mach number. As an example, consider how the stall speed of a jet transport aircraft varies with an increase in altitude. The increase in altitude results in a corresponding drop in air density and outside temperature. Suppose this jet transport is in the clean configuration (gear and flaps up) and weighs 550,000 pounds. The aircraft might stall at approximately 152 KCAS at sea level. This is equal to (on a standard day) a true velocity of 152 KTAS and a Mach number of 0.23. At FL 380, the aircraft will still stall at approximately 152 KCAS but the true velocity is about 287 KTAS with a Mach number of 0.50.

Although the stalling speed has remained the same for our purposes, both the Mach number and TAS have increased. With increasing altitude, the air density has decreased; this requires a faster true airspeed in order to have the same pressure sensed by the pitot tube for the same KCAS or KIAS (for our purposes, KCAS and KIAS are relatively close to each other). The dynamic pressure the wing experiences at FL 380 at 287 KTAS is the same as at sea level at 152 KTAS. However, it is flying at higher Mach number.

Another factor to consider is the speed of sound. A decrease in temperature in a gas results in a decrease in the speed of sound. Thus, as the aircraft climbs in altitude with outside temperature dropping, the speed of sound is dropping. At sea level, the speed of sound is approximately 661 KCAS, while at FL 380 it is 574 KCAS. Thus, for our jet transport aircraft, the stall speed (in KTAS) has gone from 152 at sea level to 287 at FL 380. Simultaneously, the speed of sound (in KCAS) has decreased from 661 to 574 and the Mach number has increased from 0.23 (152 KTAS divided by 661 KTAS) to 0.50 (287 KTAS divided by 574 KTAS). All the while the KCAS for stall has remained constant at 152. This describes what happens when the aircraft is at a constant KCAS with increasing altitude, but what happens when the pilot keeps Mach constant during the climb? In normal jet flight operations, the climb is at 250 KIAS (or higher (e.g. heavy)) to 10,000 feet and then at a specified en route climb airspeed (such as about 330 if a DC10) until reaching an altitude in the “mid-twenties” where the pilot then climbs at a constant Mach number to cruise altitude.

Assuming for illustration purposes that the pilot climbs at a MMO of 0.82 from sea level up to FL 380. KCAS goes from 543 to 261. The KIAS at each altitude would follow the same behavior and just differ by a few knots. Recall from the earlier discussion that the speed of sound is decreasing with the drop in temperature as the aircraft climbs. The Mach number is simply the ratio of the true airspeed to the speed of sound at flight conditions. The significance of this is that at a constant Mach number climb, the KCAS (and KTAS or KIAS as well) is falling off.

If the aircraft climbed high enough at this constant MMO with decreasing KIAS, KCAS, and KTAS, it would begin to approach its stall speed. At some point the stall speed of the aircraft in Mach number could equal the MMO of the aircraft, and the pilot could neither slow up (without stalling) nor speed up (without exceeding the max operating speed of the aircraft). This has been dubbed the “coffin corner.”

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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