# Aa irfoil design considerations

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1 why that THE CONCEPT OF REYNOLDS NUMBERS SEEMS A LITTLE ABSTRACT, BUT ITS REAL-WORLD APPLICATION IS THAT IT REPRESENTS THE SCALING EFFECT ON AERODYNAMICS. 48 JULY 2008

2 irfoil? Aa irfoil design considerations NEAL WILLFORD, EAA A walk down the flightline at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh reveals a variety of airplane configurations monoplane, biplane, conventional, and canard designs. A casual observation reveals different wing planforms: constant chord, tapered, a combination of the two, or even an elliptical planform if a Spitfire is on the field. If you look closer, though, you will also see a variety of airfoils. The airplane s designer selected each for a particular reason. Let s take a look at some of the factors airplane designers should consider when selecting or designing an airfoil for a new airplane. Back in 1687, Sir Isaac Newton taught the world that there are three basic laws of motion. The second law states that the force on an object is equal to its mass multiplied by the acceleration (change in velocity) that the body experiences. The third law states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. What do these two laws have to do with airplanes? Plenty. Both allow us to fly. The second law applies to the air passing over a wing, where the object is the air. The amount of air at any given moment is equal to that flowing through an imaginary tube surrounding an airplane with a diameter equal to the airplane s wingspan. EAA Sport Aviation 49

3 If the air flowing over its wing is deflected downward, the air will experience a change in speed (i.e. acceleration) in the vertical direction. This acceleration, multiplied by the mass of the air, will equal some amount of force. Recalling Newton s third law, this downward force will result in an equal upward force on the wing, or in other words, the wing will experience lift. There are several ways we can cause the air flowing over a wing to be deflected downward. We can use a flat plate set at a positive angle of attack, a curved, streamlined shape, or even a rotating cylinder spinning to cause the air to flow more quickly over the top of the cylinder than over the bottom. What aviation pioneers discovered, which still holds true today, is that the most efficient way to do this is to use a curved, streamlined shape the airfoil. In the early 1800s, Sir George Cayley discovered that a curved surface produced more lift than a similarsized flat plate. Further wind tunnel work by Horatio Phillips resulted in an 1884 patent of the curved airfoil shape for flying machines. Otto Lilienthal published his wind tunnel results for wings with various curvatures in 1889, which the Wright brothers used for their initial gliders. They later built their own small wind tunnel to test numerous wings with different curvature and aspect ratios. Their testing indicated the results published by Lilienthal were incorrect and, armed with more reliable data from their own research, they went on to size the wings for their gliders and eventually their powered Flyers. Since then, the wind tunnel, complex mathematics, and the computer have all played important roles in airfoil development. The Wright brothers aside, many of the early designers used eyeball engineering in developing or copying the airfoil shape used on their airplanes. From about 1912, airfoil development and research moved to the wind tunnel laboratories found at the University of Göttingen in Germany, the Royal Aircraft Factory in the United Kingdom, and the National Advisory Committee of Aeronautics (NACA) in the United States. Figure 1 (from Reference 1) shows some of 50 JULY 2008 atically explore the effect of camber and thickness on airfoil performance. It varied the average mean, or camber line (the resulting curve drawn through the middle of an airfoil), as well as the airfoil thickness distribution (the symmetrical airfoil shape draped over the camber line). Both of these can be seen in Figure 2. NACA found that the thickness distribution of the Clark Y and Göttingen 398 airfoils were remarkably similar, so it scaled the airfoil to get the desired thicknesses for its testing. The camber line consisted of two parabolic arcs, the first going from the leading edge to the location of maximum camber, and the second from that point to the trailing edge. NACA tested 78 different combinations of thickness and camber, and the result was the 4-digit series of airfoils. The first digit indicated the maximum camber height, the second the camber location, and the last two the maximum thickness. The best overall airfoils from this investigation were the 24 and 44 series, and they have been successfully used on many airplanes over the years. The 4-digit symmetrical airfoils also turned out to be good airfoils for tail surfaces. The 4-digit, 12 percent thick sections had the highest maximum lift coefficient, so it s no surprise that they became popular with airplane designers. For example, the 2412 has been used on many of the Cessna single-engine airplanes, whereas the 4412 was used on airplanes such as the Aeronca Champ, Fly Baby, Volksplane, and others. These airfoils are tolerant to manufacturing imperfections and bugs, and they are still worth consideration for light-sport aircraft. NACA testing showed that the maximum lift coefficient increased when the maximum camber position was moved closer to the leading or trailing edge. Moving the max camber point aft of 50 percent chord was not desirable due to the very high pitching moments. Even the 44 series airfoils have high pitching moments that can cause high trim drag at high speeds. To improve maximum lift without high pitching moment, NACA later explored moving the maximum camber position further forward, while using a differthe significant airfoils that resulted. The RAF 6 and 15 airfoils were used on a variety of World War I aircraft. After the Great War, Col. Virginius Clark developed a series of airfoils while working for the U.S. Army. The most famous of these was the Clark Y, which was used on the Spirit of St. Louis and many other aircraft in the 1920s and 30s. While airfoil development during this era was still mostly cut and try in the wind tunnel, there were those approaching it from a theoretical perspective. Russian scientist Nikolai Joukowski found that by applying some complex mathematics to the calculated flow around a cylinder, he could mathematically simulate the flow around a family of airfoil shapes. These Joukowski airfoils tend to have a tadpole shape with very thin trailing edges. Modified versions of these are the basis of some of the Göttingen airfoils shown in Figure 1. In 1933, NACA conducted an extensive investigation to system- FIGURE 1. Historical Development of Airfoil Sections Designation Date Diagram

4 A GREAT AIRFOIL WON T SAVE A FUNDAMENTALLY BAD DESIGN, NOR WILL A POOR AIRFOIL CHOICE NECESSARILY DOOM AN OTHERWISE SOUND ONE. ent camber shape formula than was used for the 4-digit series. The result was the 5-digit airfoils, with the best being the 230 series. These airfoils offered high lift, low drag, and very low pitching moment all things that designers were looking for as airplane speeds and wing loadings were increasing. This series has probably been used on a greater variety of airplanes than any other. The downside is that they have a rather abrupt stall, which can be somewhat tamed by the wing planform, washout, and thickness used. By the 1940s, researchers had figured out how to design airfoils with the potential for much lower drag. These airfoils, at cruise lift coefficients, allowed the air to flow at a constant or slightly accelerating speed over the forward 40 to 60 percent of the airfoils surface. If the surface were smooth and free from waviness, the result would be a long run of laminar flow and much lower drag. NACA s systematic investigation of laminar airfoils resulted in the 6- series airfoils. These airfoils have been used on many airplanes over the years, but often without the desired drag reduction. Reference 2 includes wind tunnel data for some of the best NACA airfoils, and those who are interested in designing airplanes will find it a useful resource. NACA largely turned to high-speed and space research after World War II, so advances in airfoil design were largely made through the efforts of Felix Wortmann and Richard Eppler of the University of Stuttgart in Germany. Wortmann s efforts focused on developing low-drag airfoils for sailplane use, whereas Eppler concentrated on developing and refining a computer program to both design and analyze airfoils. His program became the program in the 1980s for those wanting to design and analyze airfoils with a computer. Since then other airfoil programs have been developed. One of the best is XFOIL, a public-domain program (available at It does a good job of estimating an airfoil s characteristics and has powerful design features, making it very useful to custom-design airfoils for a new airplane (the typical approach now used in the aircraft industry). A Windows-friendly version of the program called XFLR5 is also free and can be found at SourceForge.net/xflr5.htm. PUTTING IT TOGETHER Airplane designers should consider FIGURE 2. Airfoil Mean Camber and Thickness FIGURE 3. Two 16% Thick Airfoils Designed Using XFOIL three aerodynamic characteristics when selecting an airfoil. These are the airfoil s lift, drag, and pitching moment. It is more convenient to look at these characteristics in terms of coefficients, which are cl, cd, and cm for lift, drag, and pitching moment respectively. Each is determined by dividing the respective force or moment by the dynamic pressure for the test conditions and the wing area. The lift and drag coefficients vary with angle of attack, as shown in Figure 4. It is often helpful to plot drag coefficient as a function of lift coefficient, as shown in Figure 5. Airfoil coefficients are usually shown with a lowercase c to indicate that they are for twodimensional results that don t have any tip losses (as found on a real wing). They can also represent the local conditions at a particular section of the wing along its span. This is useful when we want to estimate the drag coefficient for the whole wing, because we can calculate the lift coefficient along the wingspan and then get the corresponding drag coefficient from a plot like Figure 5 for several positions along the EAA Sport Aviation 51

5 wing. We can then average these drag coefficients to get an approximate drag coefficient for the whole wing. The biggest impact that three-dimensional effects have is on the maximum lift coefficient obtainable before stalling. It is worse for a rectangular wing, where the wing C LMAX is about 7 percent less than the maximum twodimensional cl of the airfoil. The tapered wing does a little better, since its lift distribution is more evenly distributed along the span and its wing C LMAX is about 4 to 5 percent lower. The pitching moment coefficient indicates the airfoil s tendency to twist along the span. Typically the pitching moment coefficient is a constant value (for the most part) when it is given with respect to the airfoil s aerodynamic center. In theory, this point is at the 25 percent chord location. In reality, it is airfoil-dependent, but is often close to this point. For example, aerodynamic center is around 24 percent chord for the NACA four-digit airfoils and around 26 percent for the NACA 6-series airfoils. Pitching moment coefficient is zero for symmetrical airfoils and is usually negative (indicating a nose-down pitching tendency) for cambered airfoils. The FIGURE 4. Estimated Lift Coefficients for Figure 2 Airfoils FIGURE 5. Estimated Drag Coefficients for Figure 2 Airfoils 52 JULY 2008

6 magnitude of the moment coefficient depends on the shape of the camber line and location of the maximum camber; it increases when the camber is further aft. It is desirable to have a reasonably low pitching moment because a high moment increases the down force required on the tail to help counteract the nose-down tendency caused by the negative pitching moment. This results in higher trim drag. Aft-cambered airfoils also tend to have worse intersection drag at the fuselage juncture and can also result in higher aileron forces. An airfoil s lift and drag characteristics are affected by the Mach number and Reynolds number at which the wing is operating. Mach number is a measure of how fast something is going relative to the speed of sound (which is 761 mph at sea level on a 59 F day). Therefore, an airplane going Mach 0.2 at sea level has an airspeed of 152 mph. Generally speaking, increasing Mach number has a favorable effect on maximum lift but a negative effect on drag. Mach number effects become more critical on high-speed airplanes, as the airflow around the upper surface of the airfoil locally approaches or exceeds the speed of sound. The NACA 6-series airfoils do better than the earlier NACA airfoils in this area, though NASA later developed some airfoils specifically for high-speed applications. These supercritical airfoils had generally flat upper surfaces to delay the shockwave as well as a generally larger leading edge radius. For most light airplanes, though, it s the Reynolds number at which the wing is operating that we are concerned about. The Reynolds number is the ratio of the inertia forces of the air flowing around an airfoil to the viscous forces of the air. The inertia forces depend on the air s density and speed, whereas the viscous forces are a measure of the air s stickiness. Air, like water, oil, honey, and other fluids, tends to be sticky. The Reynolds number range for most light aircraft is around 1 million for ultralights at stall speed to nearly 9 million for very fast airplanes. At sea level this value would be: EAA Sport Aviation 53

7 Reynolds number 9,360 x airspeed x chord where the airspeed is in miles per hour and the wing chord is in feet. The concept of Reynolds numbers seems a little abstract, but its realworld application is that it represents the scaling effect on aerodynamics. Early experimenters such as the Wrights either didn t understand or fully appreciate that effect, as their wind tunnel tests were for much lower than the full-scale Reynolds numbers of their Flyer. As a result, the wing curves they came up with are quite a bit thinner than what we use today because at very low Reynolds numbers they do perform better than the more conventional airfoils we are used to. Later, researchers were able to test airfoils at realistic Reynolds numbers in wind tunnels that could increase the atmospheric pressure 20 times above normal in order to increase the inertia forces, and consequently increase the Reynolds numbers. Though the inertia forces are many times greater than the viscous forces, it is air s viscosity that causes headaches for both aerodynamicists and airplane designers. Air s viscosity is the reason why airfoils stall at about at a 16-degree angle of attack instead of being able to provide lift up to 90 degrees. It is also behind the parasite drag an airplane experiences. It is truly the root of all evil in the world of aerodynamics. Fortunately, by careful airfoil design and manufacture, we can reduce the harm viscosity causes. Imagine if you could squint hard enough to see the molecules of air flowing over a very smooth, flat surface. You would see that the air molecules adjacent to the airfoil come to a stop due to the viscous forces, and they in turn slow down the molecules next to them. If you moved far enough away from the surface (only a fraction of an inch) the air would be moving at the same speed as if there was no viscosity at all. The thickness of air that has been slowed down is referred to as the boundary layer. If your eyes aren t that good, you can see a similar effect if you take a deck of playing cards and slide it along a table. The bottom card will stop very quickly due to the friction on the desktop. It in turn slows down the card above it, but not as much, and it travels farther, and so forth, until the top part of the deck slides quite a ways along the table. If the air molecules flow in a pattern like the deck of cards, where they are being slowed down but continue to move in the same orderly direction, then we have laminar flow. The slowdown causes drag, but it is much lower than if we have turbulent flow. In this case, we not only have the slowdown due to viscosity, but the air molecules no longer flow in an orderly path but also weave back and forth in a more chaotic fashion. The result is that more air molecules are slowed down, the boundary layer is thicker, and the final result is higher drag. Researchers found that even if air flows along a perfectly smooth surface, eventually the boundary layer will transition from laminar to turbulent. The extent of laminar flow before transitioning depends both on the Reynolds number and Mach number. Abrupt changes in contours, such as rivets, skin steps, or waviness can cause this transition to occur sooner. As mentioned earlier, designing airfoils that allowed the air to flow along the upper and TABLE 1. Approximate Drag Coefficient Increase Due to Construction Method Wing Construction Mulitiply C D by 54 JULY 2008

8 lower surface at a constant or slightly accelerating speed over 40 to 60 percent of the airfoils surface can obtain long runs of laminar flow. This amount of laminar flow on both surfaces typically occurs at cruise lift coefficients just where you want low drag. Factors other than aerodynamics should also be considered when choosing an airfoil. For example, strut-braced wings can use 12 percent thick airfoils without a severe weight penalty. Cantilever wings require a much beefier spar and usually have thicker root airfoils in order to reduce the spar weight. Often 15 to 18 percent thick root airfoils are used that transition to 12 to 15 percent thick tip airfoils when the wing is tapered. Thicker airfoils usually have higher drag, but often the drag difference is minimal in light of the reduction in wing weight afforded by using them. Airfoils that are thinner than 12 percent usually have sharp stall characteristics and lower C LMAX s, and should be avoided, especially at the tip on a tapered wing. The exception is the single-surface airfoils used on some ultralights, which by design are very thin yet still have a high lift coefficient (and high drag). Reference 3 provides some interesting wind tunnel results on a few different ultralight wings. The construction method and materials used can also influence airfoil selection. Extensive laminar flow airfoils offer low drag provided the wing contour is smooth and accurate. Extensive laminar flow is difficult to obtain with aluminum skins less than inches thick. The Schreder sailplanes achieve laminar flow with thinner aluminum skins by using closely spaced, bonded foam ribs to maintain contour. However, metal bonding in a homebuilding environment can be very difficult and should be approached cautiously. Composite or plywood wings offer more potential for achieving laminar flow. Table 1 provides the approximate increase in drag due to different construction techniques. Reference 4 is an excellent report on NASA s examination of the amount of laminar flow achieved in flight on several different types of construction. Construction method can also affect an airfoil s maximum lift coefficient. Reference 5 provides the wind tunnel EAA Sport Aviation 55

9 results for a Göttingen 387 airfoil with fabric-covered wing construction compared to the results for a smooth airfoil. The data, for this airfoil at least, indicate very little difference in maximum lift. Ultimately, low wing drag is what counts when performance is a major requirement, and that means considering the construction method and obtainable smoothness early in the wing-sizing and airfoil-selection process. For example, Figure 2 shows two different airfoils I designed a few years ago using the XFOIL program. The top one was designed for high C LMAX lift by using a generous leading edge and a carefully shaped upper surface. A drawback is that it is only capable of 20 to 30 percent laminar flow. The second airfoil was designed for 40 to 50 percent laminar flow and a moderate C LMAX. Figure 3 shows the estimated cl comparison for both clean airfoils and with the laminar flow tripped at 5 percent chord top and bottom. The laminar airfoil C LMAX is barely affected by early transition, compared to a 10 percent loss for the high-lift airfoil. Assuming the wing is sized for one of the requirements mentioned earlier, a wing using the high-lift airfoil could be 10 percent smaller (even accounting for the lift loss due to the tripped flow). Figure 4 shows the estimated drag of the two airfoils, and the laminar one is definitely superior in the cruise cl range. However, if the chosen construction method only REFERENCES: Aerodynamics of the Airplane, Millikan, Clark, 1941 (Wiley and Sons). Theory of Wing Sections, Abbot and von Doenhoff, 1959 (Dover Publications). American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, AIAA , Effects of Covering Configurations on Ultralight Wing Aerodynamics, J.F. Marchman and R.M. French. allows a maximum of 25 percent laminar flow, then the drag difference essentially disappears. The drag of the highlift wing would actually be less since it could be smaller (and probably lighter). While developing the Bonanza, Beechcraft did wind tunnel and flight testing with two different wings one with laminar airfoils and one with 230 series airfoils. Both tests revealed that the wing that used laminar airfoils was overall inferior for their particular construction methods and needs, so the airplane went into production using the 230 series airfoils. Selecting an airfoil for a new design is an important decision. However, it is only one of many important ones that a designer needs to make. A great airfoil won t save a fundamentally bad design, nor will a poor airfoil choice necessarily doom an otherwise sound one. Airplane design is a mixture of art, science, and the exercise of good judgment, and choosing an airfoil will require the designer to exercise all three. A second-generation EAA member since 1981, Neal Willford learned to fly in an ultralight in 1982 and received his pilot certificate in He has done design work on a variety of aircraft at Cessna, from the 172 to the Citation X. In recent years he has been heavily involved in the development of the Cessna NGP and SkyCatcher LSA. In his spare time he is finishing a Thorp T-211 Sky Scooter. Natural laminar flow experiments on modern airplane surfaces, NASA Technical Paper 2256, Bruce Holmes, Clifford Obara, and Long Yip, Available to download at Characteristics of an Airfoil as Affected by Fabric Sag, NACA TN- 428, Kenneth Ward. Also available from the NASA website. 56 JULY 2008

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