An airfoil is any device that creates a force, based on Bernoulli’s principles or Newton’s laws, when air is caused to flow over the surface of the device. An airfoil can be the wing of an airplane, the blade of a propeller, the rotor blade of a helicopter, or the fan blade of a turbofan engine. The wing of an airplane moves through the air because the airplane is in motion, and generates lift by the process previously described. By comparison, a propeller blade, helicopter rotor blade, or turbofan engine fan blade rotates through the air. These rotating blades could be referred to as rotating wings, as is common with helicopters when they are called rotary wing aircraft. The rotating wing can be viewed as a device that creates lift, or just as correctly, it can be viewed as a device that creates thrust.

In Figure 3-57 an airfoil (wing) is shown, with some of the terminology that is used to describe a wing. The terms and their meaning are as follows:


The camber of a wing is the curvature which is present on top and bottom surfaces. The camber on the top is much more pronounced, unless the wing is a symmetrical airfoil, which has the same camber top and bottom. The bottom of the wing, more often than not, is relatively flat. The increased camber on top is what causes the velocity of the air to increase and the static pressure to decrease. The bottom of the wing has less velocity and more static pressure, which is why the wing generates lift.

Chord Line

The chord line is an imaginary straight line running from the wing’s leading edge to its trailing edge. The angle between the chord line and the longitudinal axis of the airplane is known as the angle of incidence.

Relative Wind

Whatever direction the airplane is flying, the relative wind is in the opposite direction. If the airplane is flying due north, and someone in the airplane is not shielded from the elements, that person will feel like the wind is coming directly from the south.

Angle of Attack

The angle between the chord line and the relative wind is the angle of attack. As the angle of attack increases, the lift on the wing increases. If the angle of attack becomes too great, the airflow can separate from the wing and the lift will be destroyed. When this occurs, a condition known as a stall takes place.

There are a number of different shapes, known as planforms, that a wing can have. A wing in the shape of a rectangle is very common on small general aviation airplanes. An elliptical shape or tapered wing can also be used, but these do not have as desirable a stall characteristic. For airplanes that operate at high subsonic speeds, sweptback wings are common, and for supersonic flight, a delta shape might be used.

The aspect ratio of a wing is the relationship between its span (wingtip to wingtip measurement) and the chord of the wing. If a wing has a long span and a very narrow chord, it is said to have a high aspect ratio. A higher aspect ratio produces less drag for a given flight speed, and is typically found on glider type aircraft.

The angle of incidence of a wing is the angle formed by the intersection of the wing chord line and the horizontal plane passing through the longitudinal axis of the aircraft. Many airplanes are designed with a greater angle of incidence at the root of the wing than at the tip, and this is referred to as washout. This feature causes the inboard part of the wing to stall before the outboard part, which helps maintain aileron control during the initial stages of a wing stall.

Boundary Layer Airflow

The boundary layer is a very thin layer of air lying over the surface of the wing and, for that matter, all other surfaces of the airplane. Because air has viscosity, this layer of air tends to adhere to the wing. As the wing moves forward through the air, the boundary layer at first flows smoothly over the streamlined shape of the airfoil. Here the flow is called the laminar layer.

As the boundary layer approaches the center of the wing, it begins to lose speed due to skin friction and it becomes thicker and turbulent. Here it is called the turbulent layer. The point at which the boundary layer changes from laminar to turbulent is called the transition point. Where the boundary layer becomes turbulent, drag due to skin friction is relatively high. As speed increases, the transition point tends to move forward. As the angle of attack increases, the transition point also tends to move forward. With higher angles of attack and further thickening of the boundary layer, the turbulence becomes so great the air breaks away from the surface of the wing. At this point, the lift of the wing is destroyed and a condition known as a stall has occurred. In Figure 3-58, view A shows a normal angle of attack and the airflow staying in contact with the wing. View B shows an extreme angle of attack and the airflow separating and becoming turbulent on the top of the wing. In view B, the wing is in a stall.

 ©AvStop Online Magazine                                                                                                                                                      Contact Us              Return To Books

AvStop Aviation News and Resource Online Magazine

Grab this Headline Animator