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Review of Basic Aerodynamics – The Four Forces

in Aerodynamic Factors

The instrument pilot must understand the relationship and differences between several factors that affect the performance of an aircraft in flight. Also, it is crucial to understand how the aircraft reacts to various control and power changes, because the environment in which instrument pilots fly has inherent hazards not found in visual flying. The basis for this understanding is found in the four forces acting on an aircraft and Newton’s Three Laws of Motion.

Relative Wind is the direction of the airflow with respect to an airfoil.

Angle of Attack is the acute angle measured between the relative wind, or flight path and the chord of the airfoil. [Figure 2-2]

Figure 2-2. Angle of Attack and Relative Wind.

Figure 2-2. Angle of Attack and Relative Wind.

Flight path is the course or track along which the aircraft is flying or is intended to be flown.

The Four Forces

The four basic forces [Figure 2-3] acting upon an aircraft in flight are lift, weight, thrust, and drag.

Figure 2-3. The Four Forces and Three Axes of Rotation.

Figure 2-3. The Four Forces and Three Axes of Rotation.



Lift is a component of the total aerodynamic force on an airfoil and acts perpendicular to the relative wind. Relative wind is the direction of the airflow with respect to an airfoil. This force acts straight up from the average (called mean) center of pressure (CP), which is called the center of lift. It should be noted that it is a point along the chord line of an airfoil through which all aerodynamic forces are considered to act. The magnitude of lift varies proportionately with speed, air density, shape and size of the airfoil, and angle of attack. During straight-and-level flight, lift and weight are equal.


Weight is the force exerted by an aircraft from the pull of gravity. It acts on an aircraft through its center of gravity (CG) and is straight down. This should not be confused with the center of lift, which can be significantly different from the CG. As an aircraft is descending, weight is greater than lift.


Thrust is a force that drives an aircraft through the air and can be measured in thrust and/or horsepower. It is a component that is parallel to the center of thrust and overcomes drag providing the aircraft with its forward speed component.


Drag is the net aerodynamic force parallel to the relative wind and is generally a sum of two components: induced drag and parasite drag.

Induced drag

Induced drag is caused from the creation of lift and increases with airspeed. Therefore, if the wing is not producing lift, induced drag is zero. Conversely, induced drag increases with airspeed.

Parasite drag

Parasite drag is all drag not caused from the production of lift. Parasite drag is created by displacement of air by the aircraft, turbulence generated by the airfoil, and the hindrance of airflow as it passes over the surface of the aircraft or components. All of these forces create drag not from the production of lift but the movement of an object through an air mass. Parasite drag increases with speed and includes skin friction drag, interference drag, and form drag.

• Skin Friction Drag

Covering the entire “wetted” surface of the aircraft is a thin layer of air called a boundary layer. The air molecules on the surface have zero velocity in relation to the surface; however, the layer just above moves over the stagnant molecules below because it is pulled along by a third layer close to the free stream of air. The velocities of the layers increase as the distance from the surface increases until free stream velocity is reached, but all are affected by the free stream. The distance (total) between the skin surface and where free stream velocity is reached is called the boundary layer. At subsonic levels the cumulative layers are about the thickness of a playing card, yet their motion sliding over one another creates a drag force. This force retards motion due to the viscosity of the air and is called skin friction drag. Because skin friction drag is related to a large surface area its affect on smaller aircraft is small versus large transport aircraft where skin friction drag may be considerable.

• Interference Drag

Interference drag is generated by the collision of airstreams creating eddy currents, turbulence, or restrictions to smooth flow. For instance, the airflow around a fuselage and around the wing meet at some point, usually near the wing’s root. These airflows interfere with each other causing a greater drag than the individual values. This is often the case when external items are placed on an aircraft. That is, the drag of each item individually, added to that of the aircraft, are less than that of the two items when allowed to interfere with one another.

• Form Drag

Form drag is the drag created because of the shape of a component or the aircraft. If one were to place a circular disk in an air stream, the pressure on both the top and bottom would be equal. However, the airflow starts to break down as the air flows around the back of the disk. This creates turbulence and hence a lower pressure results. Because the total pressure is affected by this reduced pressure, it creates a drag. Newer aircraft are generally made with consideration to this by fairing parts along the fuselage (teardrop) so that turbulence and form drag is reduced. Total lift must overcome the total weight of the aircraft, which is comprised of the actual weight and the tail-down force used to control the aircraft’s pitch attitude. Thrust must overcome total drag in order to provide forward speed with which to produce lift. Understanding how the aircraft’s relationship between these elements and the environment provide proper interpretation of the aircraft’s instruments.


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