Thursday, September 6, 2007


Air has viscosity, and will encounter resistance to flow over a surface. The viscous nature of airflow reduces the local velocity's on a surface and is responsible for skin friction drag. As the air passes over the wing's surface, the air particles nearest the surface come to rest. The next layer of particles is slowed down but not stopped. Some small but measurable distance from the surface, the air particles are moving at free stream velocity. The layer of air over the wing's surface, which is slowed down or stopped by viscosity, is termed the "boundary layer." Typical boundary layer thickness on an airplane range from small fractions of an inch near the leading edge of a wing to the order of 12 inches at the aft end of a large airplane such as a Boeing 747.

There are two different types of boundary layer flow: laminar and turbulent. 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. 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. 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 angle of attack is increased.

"Vortex Generators" are used to delay or prevent shock wave induced boundary layer separation encountered in transonic flight. Vortex generators are small low aspect ratio airfoils placed at a 12° to 15° angle of attack to the air stream. They are usually spaced a few inches apart along the wing ahead of the ailerons or other control surfaces. Vortex generators create a vortex that mixes the boundary airflow with the high-energy airflow just above the surface. This produces higher surface velocity's and increases the energy of the boundary layer. Thus, a stronger shock wave will be necessary to produce airflow separation.

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