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How, exactly, does an airplane wing work?

  1. May 19, 2006 #1
    The conventional explantion is that the wing is curved on top. This curve means that the air has to travel farther than the air on the underside. Because the air is less dense on top there is greater air pressure on the under side of the wing and this is what gives the wing lift.

    I see one potentily serious flaw with this line of reasoning. In order for the molecules to move up and over the wing they must first strike the wing and then bounce upwards. This collision will mean that a downward force will be exerted on the wing. I would think that this downward force would cancel out any potential vacuum that is created in the above explanation.

    Is the theory more complex than this? Are there other forces, such as Van der Waals forces, involved? What am I missing?
  2. jcsd
  3. May 19, 2006 #2


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    There's some infomation on this at


    While the "pellet model" of lift that you suggest can work in some applications (such as space-shuttle rentry) as mentioned on this webpage, it does not work well for normal subsonic flight at sea level. In this regime, significant "flow attachment" to the upper side of the wing occurs. Because of this, the upper wing generates significant lift. Another way of putting this - in sea-level subsonic flight, Euler's equations (of fluid dynamics) are a much better way of estimating lift.

    To "fix up" your pellet model, you'd need to model the pellets as interacting significantly. Modelling the pellets as ideal hard interacting spheres should give you an ideal fluid, which should reduce to Euler's equations (IIRC, anyway).

    This level of modelling still isn't perfect, because it ignores effects such as viscosity. When viscosity is included, things starts to get really complicated fast - one can write down the appropriate partial differential equations (Navier Stokes), but solving them is another matter.

    There are some more resources on this question at

    Last edited: May 19, 2006
  4. May 19, 2006 #3


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    At the big picture level, a wing has an effective angle of attack, as it passes by a volume of air, it introduces a void, that is mostly moving downwards and a bit forwards, which causes air to accelerate downwards (lift) and a bit forwards (drag). In the typical case where angle of attack is small, most of the downwards acceleration occurs above the wing. This is mostly because the lower pressure area above the wing draws some of the airstream away from the air that would otherwise flow below the wing, which lowers the seperation point where the airstream splits up, and because at the seperation point the air stream that flows under a wing is already deflected downwards at the seperation point so the wing's defelection of the air doesn't add that much more downwards velocity (less downwards acceleration), as opposed to the uppper airstream which starts off being deflected upwards, and then curves (acclerates) back towards the low pressure area caused by the moving void left by the wing as it passes through the air.

    Surface friction, visocity of the air, laminar versus turbulent flow, ... affect the amount of lift generated.

    Another link:

    Last edited: May 19, 2006
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