There is an art, or rather, a knack, to flying…

The aerofoil is one of the greatest inventions mankind has come up with in the last 150 years; in the late 19th century, aristocratic Yorkshireman (as well as inventor, philanthropist, engineer and generally quite cool dude) George Cayley identified the way bird wings generated lift merely by moving through the air (rather than just by flapping), and set about trying to replicate this lift force. To this end, he built a ‘whirling arm’ to test wings and measure the upwards lift force they generated, and found that a cambered wing shape (as in modern aerofoils) similar to that of birds was more efficient at generating lift than one with flat surfaces. This was enough for him to engineer the first manned, sustained flight, sending his coachman across Brompton Dale in 1863 in a homemade glider (the coachman reportedly handed in his notice upon landing with the immortal line “I was hired to drive, not fly”), but he still didn’t really have a proper understanding of how his wing worked.

Nowadays, lift is understood better by both science and the general population; but many people who think they know how a wing works don’t quite understand the full principle. There are two incomplete/incorrect theories that people commonly believe in; the ‘skipping stone’ theory and the ‘equal transit time’ theory.

The ‘equal transit time’ theory is popular because it sounds very sciency and realistic; because a wing is a cambered shape, the tip-tail distance following the wing shape is longer over the top of the wing than it is when following the bottom surface. Therefore, air travelling over the top of the wing has to travel further than the air going underneath. Now, since the aircraft is travelling at a constant speed, all the air must surely be travelling past the aircraft at the same rate; so, regardless of what path the air takes, it must take the same time to travel the same lateral distance. Since speed=distance/time, and air going over the top of the wing has to cover a greater distance, it will be travelling faster than the air going underneath the wing. Bernoulli’s principle tells us that if air travels faster, the air pressure is lower; this means the air on top of the wing is at a lower pressure than the air underneath it, and this difference in pressure generates an upwards force. This force is lift.

The key flaw in this theory is the completely wrong assumption that the air over the top and bottom of the wing must take the same time to travel across it. If we analyse the airspeed at various points over a wing we find that air going over the top does, in fact, travel faster than air going underneath it (the reason for this comes from Euler’s fluid dynamics equations, which can be used to derive the Navier-Stokes equations for aerofoil behaviour. Please don’t ask me to explain them). However, this doesn’t mean that the two airflows necessarily coincide at the same point when we reach the trailing edge of the wing, so the theory doesn’t correctly calculate the amount of lift generated by the wing. This is compounded by the theory not explaining any of the lift generated from the bottom face of the wing, or why the angle wing  is set at (the angle of attack) affects the lift it generates, or how one is able to generate some lift from just a flat sheet set at an angle (or any other symmetrical wing profile), or how aircraft fly upside-down.

Then we have the (somewhat simpler) ‘skipping stone’ theory, which attempts to explain the lift generated from the bottom surface of the wing. Its basic postulate concerns the angle of attack; with an angled wing, the bottom face of the wing strikes some of the incoming air, causing air molecules to bounce off it. This is like the bottom of the wing being continually struck by lots of tiny ball bearings, sort of the same thing that happens when a skimming stone bounces off the surface of the water, and it generates a net force; lift. Not only that, but this theory claims to explain the lower pressure found on top of the wing; since air is blocked by the tilted wing, not so much gets to the area immediately above/behind it. This means there are less air molecules in a given space, giving rise to a lower pressure; another way of explaining the lift generated.

There isn’t much fundamentally wrong with this theory, but once again the mathematics don’t check out; it also does not accurately predict the amount of lift generated by a wing. It also fails to explain why a cambered wing set at a zero angle of attack is still able to generate lift; but actually it provides a surprisingly good model when we consider supersonic flight.

Lift can be explained as a combination of these two effects, but to do so is complex and unnecessary  we can find a far better explanation just by considering the shape the airflow makes when travelling over the wing. Air when passing over an aerofoil tends to follow the shape of its surface (Euler again), meaning it deviates from its initially straight path to follow a curved trajectory. This curve-shaped motion means the direction of the airflow must be changing; and since velocity is a vector quantity, any change in the direction of the air’s movement represents a change in its overall velocity, regardless of any change in airspeed (which contributes separately). Any change in velocity corresponds to the air being accelerated, and since Force = mass x acceleration this acceleration generates a net force; this force is what corresponds to lift. This ‘turning’ theory not only describes lift generation on both the top and bottom wing surfaces, since air is turned upon meeting both, but also why changing the angle off attack affects lift; a steeper angle means the air has to turn more when following the wing’s shape, meaning more lift is generated. Go too steep however, and the airflow breaks away from the wing and undergoes a process called flow separation… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

This explanation works fine so long as our aircraft is travelling at less than the speed of sound. However, as we approach Mach 1, strange things start to happen, as we shall find out next time…

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