Fig 6 Downwash and wing vortices in the fog.

(Photographer Paul Bowen, courtesy of Cessna Aircraft, Co.) So how does a thin wing divert so much air? When the air is bent around the top of the wing, it pulls on the air above it accelerating that air down, otherwise there would be voids in the air left above the wing. Air is pulled from above to prevent voids. This pulling causes the pressure to become lower above the wing. It is the acceleration of the air above the wing in the downward direction that gives lift. (Why the wing bends the air with enough force to generate lift will be discussed in the next section.)

As seen in figure 4, a complication in the picture of a wing is the effect of "upwash" at the leading edge of the wing. As the wing moves along, air is not only diverted down at the rear of the wing, but air is pulled up at the leading edge. This upwash actually contributes to negative lift and more air must be diverted down to compensate for it. This will be discussed later when we consider ground effect.

Normally, one looks at the air flowing over the wing in the frame of reference of the wing. In other words, to the pilot the air is moving and the wing is standing still. We have already stated that an observer on the ground would see the air coming off the wing almost vertically. But what is the air doing above and below the wing? Figure 7 shows an instantaneous snapshot of how air molecules are moving as a wing passes by. Remember in this figure the air is initially at rest and it is the wing moving. Ahead of the leading edge, air is moving up (upwash). At the trailing edge, air is diverted down (downwash). Over the top the air is accelerated towards the trailing edge. Underneath, the air is accelerated forward slightly, if at all.

Fig 7 Direction of air movement around a wing as seen by an observer on the ground. In the mathematical aerodynamics description of lift this rotation of the air around the wing gives rise to the "bound vortex" or "circulation" model. The advent of this model, and the complicated mathematical manipulations associated with it, leads to the direct understanding of forces on a wing. But, the mathematics required typically takes students in aerodynamics some time to master.

One observation that can be made from figure 7 is that the top surface of the wing does much more to move the air than the bottom. So the top is the more critical surface. Thus, airplanes can carry external stores, such as drop tanks, under the wings but not on top where they would interfere with lift. That is also why wing struts under the wing are common but struts on the top of the wing have been historically rare. A strut, or any obstruction, on the top of the wing would interfere with the lift.

Air has viscosityThe natural question is "how does the wing divert the air down?" When a moving fluid, such as air or water, comes into contact with a curved surface it will try to follow that surface. To demonstrate this effect, hold a water glass horizontally under a faucet such that a small stream of water just touches the side of the glass. Instead of flowing straight down, the presence of the glass causes the water to wrap around the glass as is shown in figure 8. This tendency of fluids to follow a curved surface is known as the Coanda effect. From NewtonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s first law we know that for the fluid to bend there must be a force acting on it. From NewtonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s third law we know that the fluid must put an equal and opposite force on the object which caused the fluid to bend.

Fig 8 Coanda effect.Why should a fluid follow a curved surface? The answer is viscosity; the resistance to flow which also gives the air a kind of "stickiness". Viscosity in air is very small but it is enough for the air molecules to want to stick to the surface. At the surface the relative velocity between the surface and the nearest air molecules is exactly zero. (That is why one cannot hose the dust off of a car and why there is dust on the backside of the fans in a wind tunnel.) Just above the surface the fluid has some small velocity. The farther one goes from the surface the faster the fluid is moving until the external velocity is reached (note that this occurs in less than an inch). Because the fluid near the surface has a change in velocity, the fluid flow is bent towards the surface. Unless the bend is too tight, the fluid will follow the surface. This volume of air around the wing that appears to be partially stuck to the wing is called the "boundary layer".

Lift as a function of angle of attackThere are many types of wing: conventional, symmetric, conventional in inverted flight, the early biplane wings that looked like warped boards, and even the proverbial "barn door". In all cases, the wing is forcing the air down, or more accurately pulling air down from above. What each of these wings have in common is an angle of attack with respect to the oncoming air. It is this angle of attack that is the primary parameter in determining lift. The inverted wing can be explained by its angle of attack, despite the apparent contradiction with the popular explanation involving the Bernoulli principle. A pilot adjusts the angle of attack to adjust the lift for the speed and load. The popular explanation of lift which focuses on the shape of the wing gives the pilot only the speed to adjust.

To better understand the role of the angle of attack it is useful to introduce an "effective" angle of attack, defined such that the angle of the wing to the oncoming air that gives zero lift is defined to be zero degrees. If one then changes the angle of attack both up and down one finds that the lift is proportional to the angle. Figure 9 shows the coefficient of lift (lift normalized for the size of the wing) for a typical wing as a function of the effective angle of attack. A similar lift versus angle of attack relationship is found for all wings, independent of their design. This is true for the wing of a 747 or a barn door. The role of the angle of attack is more important than the details of the airfoilÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s shape in understanding lift.

Fig 9 Coefficient of lift versus the effective angle of attack.Typically, the lift begins to decrease at an angle of attack of about 15 degrees. The forces necessary to bend the air to such a steep angle are greater than the viscosity of the air will support, and the air begins to separate from the wing. This separation of the airflow from the top of the wing is a stall.

The wing as air "scoop"We now would like to introduce a new mental image of a wing. One is used to thinking of a wing as a thin blade that slices though the air and develops lift somewhat by magic. The new image that we would like you to adopt is that of the wing as a scoop diverting a certain amount of air from the horizontal to roughly the angle of attack, as depicted in figure 10. The scoop can be pictured as an invisible structure put on the wing at the factory. The length of the scoop is equal to the length of the wing and the height is somewhat related to the chord length (distance from the leading edge of the wing to the trailing edge). The amount of air intercepted by this scoop is proportional to the speed of the plane and the density of the air, and nothing else.

Fig 10 The wing as a scoop.As stated before, the lift of a wing is proportional to the amount of air diverted down times the vertical velocity of that air. As a plane increases speed, the scoop diverted more air. Since the load on the wing, which is the weight of the plane, does not increase the vertical speed of the diverted air must be decreased proportionately. Thus, the angle of attack is reduced to maintain a constant lift. When the plane goes higher, the air becomes less dense so the scoop diverts less air for the same speed. Thus, to compensate the angle of attack must be increased. The concepts of this section will be used to understand lift in a way not possible with the popular explanation.

Lift requires powerWhen a plane passes overhead the formerly still air ends up with a downward velocity. Thus, the air is left in motion after the plane leaves. The air has been given energy. Power is energy, or work, per time. So, lift must require power. This power is supplied by the airplaneÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s engine (or by gravity and thermals for a sailplane).

How much power will we need to fly? The power needed for lift is the work (energy) per unit time and so is proportional to the amount of air diverted down times the velocity squared of that diverted air. We have already stated that the lift of a wing is proportional to the amount of air diverted down times the downward velocity of that air. Thus, the power needed to lift the airplane is proportional to the load (or weight) times the vertical velocity of the air. If the speed of the plane is doubled the amount of air diverted down doubles. Thus the angle of attack must be reduced to give a vertical velocity that is half the original to give the same lift. The power required for lift has been cut in half. This shows that the power required for lift becomes less as the airplane's speed increases. In fact, we have shown that this power to create lift is proportional to one over the speed of the plane.

But, we all know that to go faster (in cruise) we must apply more power. So there must be more to power than the power required for lift. The power associated with lift, described above, is often called the "induced" power. Power is also needed to overcome what is called "parasitic" drag, which is the drag associated with moving the wheels, struts, antenna, etc. through the air. The energy the airplane imparts to an air molecule on impact is proportional to the speed squared. The number of molecules struck per time is proportional to the speed. Thus the parasitic power required to overcome parasitic drag increases as the speed cubed.

Figure 11 shows the power curves for induced power, parasitic power, and total power which is the sum of induced power and parasitic power. Again, the induced power goes as one over the speed and the parasitic power goes as the speed cubed. At low speed the power requirements of flight are dominated by the induced power. The slower one flies the less air is diverted and thus the angle of attack must be increased to maintain lift. Pilots practice flying on the "backside of the power curve" so that they recognizes that the angle of attack and the power required to stay in the air at very low speeds are considerable.

Fig 11 Power requirements versus speed.At cruise, the power requirement is dominated by parasitic power. Since this goes as the speed cubed an increase in engine size gives one a faster rate of climb but does little to improve the cruise speed of the plane.

Since we now know how the power requirements vary with speed, we can understand drag, which is a force. Drag is simply power divided by speed. Figure 12 shows the induced, parasitic, and total drag as a function of speed. Here the induced drag varies as one over speed squared and parasitic drag varies as the speed squared. Taking a look at these curves one can deduce a few things about how airplanes are designed. Slower airplanes, such as gliders, are designed to minimize induced drag (or induced power), which dominates at lower speeds. Faster airplanes are more concerned with parasite drag (or parasitic power).

Fig 12 Drag versus speed.Wing efficiencyAt cruise, a non-negligible amount of the drag of a modern wing is induced drag. Parasitic drag, which dominates at cruise, of a Boeing 747 wing is only equivalent to that of a 1/2-inch cable of the same length. One might ask what effects the efficiency of a wing. We saw that the induced power of a wing is proportional to the vertical velocity of the air. If the length of a wing were to be doubled, the size of our scoop would also double, diverting twice as much air. So, for the same lift the vertical velocity (and thus the angle of attack) would have to be halved. Since the induced power is proportional to the vertical velocity of the air, it too is reduced by half. Thus, the lifting efficiency of a wing is proportional to one over the length of the wing. The longer the wing the less induced power required to produce the same lift, though this is achieved with and increase in parasitic drag. Low speed airplanes are effected more by induced drag than fast airplanes and so have longer wings. That is why sailplanes, which fly at low speeds, have such long wings. High-speed fighters, on the other hand, feel the effects of parasite drag more than our low speed trainers. Therefore, fast airplanes have shorter wings to lower parasite drag.

There is a misconception by some that lift does not require power. This comes from aeronautics in the study of the idealized theory of wing sections (airfoils). When dealing with an airfoil, the picture is actually that of a wing with infinite span. Since we have seen that the power necessary for lift is proportional to one over the length of the wing, a wing of infinite span does not require power for lift. If lift did not require power airplanes would have the same range full as they do empty, and helicopters could hover at any altitude and load. Best of all, propellers (which are rotating wings) would not require power to produce thrust. Unfortunately, we live in the real world where both lift and propulsion require power.

Power and wing loadingLet us now consider the relationship between wing loading and power. Does it take more power to fly more passengers and cargo? And, does loading affect stall speed? At a constant speed, if the wing loading is increased the vertical velocity must be increased to compensate. This is done by increasing the angle of attack. If the total weight of the airplane were doubled (say, in a 2g turn) the vertical velocity of the air is doubled to compensate for the increased wing loading. The induced power is proportional to the load times the vertical velocity of the diverted air, which have both doubled. Thus the induced power requirement has increased by a factor of four! The same thing would be true if the airplaneÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s weight were doubled by adding more fuel, etc.

One way to measure the total power is to look at the rate of fuel consumption. Figure 13 shows the fuel consumption versus gross weight for a large transport airplane traveling at a constant speed (obtained from actual data). Since the speed is constant the change in fuel consumption is due to the change in induced power. The data are fitted by a constant (parasitic power) and a term that goes as the load squared. This second term is just what was predicted in our Newtonian discussion of the effect of load on induced power.

Fig 13 Fuel consumption versus load for a large transport airplane

traveling at a constant speed.The increase in the angle of attack with increased load has a downside other than just the need for more power. As shown in figure 9 a wing will eventually stall when the air can no longer follow the upper surface. That is, when the critical angle is reached. Figure 14 shows the angle of attack as a function of airspeed for a fixed load and for a 2-g turn. The angle of attack at which the plane stalls is constant and is not a function of wing loading. The stall speed increases as the square root of the load. Thus, increasing the load in a 2-g turn increases the speed at which the wing will stall by 40%. An increase in altitude will further increase the angle of attack in a 2-g turn. This is why pilots practice "accelerated stalls" which illustrates that an airplane can stall at any speed. For any speed there is a load that will induce a stall.

Fig 14 Angle of attack versus speed

for straight and level flight and for a 2-g turn. Wing vorticesOne might ask what the downwash from a wing looks like. The downwash comes off the wing as a sheet and is related to the details on the load distribution on the wing. Figure 15 shows, through condensation, the distribution of lift on an airplane during a high-g maneuver. From the figure one can see that the distribution of load changes from the root of the wing to the tip. Thus, the amount of air in the downwash must also change along the wing. The wing near the root is "scooping" up much more air than the tip. Since the root is diverting so much air the net effect is that the downwash sheet will begin to curl outward around itself, just as the air bends around the top of the wing because of the change in the velocity of the air. This is the wing vortex. The tightness of the curling of the wing vortex is proportional to the rate of change in lift along the wing. At the wing tip the lift must rapidly become zero causing the tightest curl. This is the wing tip vortex and is just a small (though often most visible) part of the wing vortex. Returning to figure 6 one can clearly see the development of the wing vortices in the downwash as well as the wing tip vortices.

Fig 15 Condensation showing the distribution of lift along a wing. The wingtip vortices are also seen.

(from Patterns in the Sky, J.F. Campbell and J.R. Chambers, NASA SP-514.)

Winglets (those small vertical extensions on the tips of some wings) are used to improve the efficiency of the wing by increasing the effective length of the wing. The lift of a normal wing must go to zero at the tip because the bottom and the top communicate around the end. The winglets blocks this communication so the lift can extend farther out on the wing. Since the efficiency of a wing increases with length, this gives increased efficiency. One caveat is that winglet design is tricky and winglets can actually be detrimental if not properly designed.

Ground effectAnother common phenomenon that is misunderstood is that of ground effect. That is the increased efficiency of a wing when flying within a wing length of the ground. A low-wing airplane will experience a reduction in drag by 50% just before it touches down. There is a great deal of confusion about ground effect. Many pilots (and the FAA VFR Exam-O-Gram No. 47) mistakenly believe that ground effect is the result of air being compressed between the wing and the ground.

To understand ground effect it is necessary to have an understanding of upwash. For the pressures involved in low speed flight, air is considered to be non-compressible. When the air is accelerated over the top of the wing and down, it must be replaced. So some air must shift around the wing (below and forward, and then up) to compensate, similar to the flow of water around a canoe paddle when rowing. This is the cause of upwash.

As stated earlier, upwash is accelerating air in the wrong direction for lift. Thus a greater amount of downwash is necessary to compensate for the upwash as well as to provide the necessary lift. Thus more work is done and more power required. Near the ground the upwash is reduced because the ground inhibits the circulation of the air under the wing. So less downwash is necessary to provide the lift. The angle of attack is reduced and so is the induced power, making the wing more efficient.

Earlier, we estimated that a Cessna 172 flying at 110 knots must divert about 2.5 ton/sec to provide lift. In our calculations we neglected the upwash. From the magnitude of ground effect, it is clear that the amount of air diverted is probably more like 5 ton/sec.

ConclusionsLet us review what we have learned and get some idea of how the physical description has given us a greater ability to understand flight. First what have we learned:

The amount of air diverted by the wing is proportional to the speed of the wing and the air density.

The vertical velocity of the diverted air is proportional to the speed of the wing and the angle of attack.

The lift is proportional to the amount of air diverted times the vertical velocity of the air.

The power needed for lift is proportional to the lift times the vertical velocity of the air.

Now let us look at some situations from the physical point of view and from the perspective of the popular explanation.

The planeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s speed is reduced. The physical view says that the amount of air diverted is reduced so the angle of attack is increased to compensate. The power needed for lift is also increased. The popular explanation cannot address this.

The load of the plane is increased. The physical view says that the amount of air diverted is the same but the angle of attack must be increased to give additional lift. The power needed for lift has also increased. Again, the popular explanation cannot address this.

A plane flies upside down. The physical view has no problem with this. The plane adjusts the angle of attack of the inverted wing to give the desired lift. The popular explanation implies that inverted flight is impossible.

As one can see, the popular explanation, which fixates on the shape of the wing, may satisfy many but it does not give one the tools to really understand flight. The physical description of lift is easy to understand and much more powerful.

I hope this helps explain to those that are interested. I am sure Paul will have some corrections or comments?

Additional material and sources from Boeing Aircraft Seattle USA (My Employer) and Scott Eberhardt formerly of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, University of Washington, now at Boeing Corporation Seattle, also published in book form and online for free use.