How Lift is Created

Pressure Variations Caused By Turning a Moving Fluid
Lift is a force on a wing (or any other solid object) immersed in a moving fluid, and it acts perpendicular to the flow of the fluid. (Drag is the same thing, but acts parallel to the direction of the fluid flow). The net force is created by pressure differences brought about by variations in speed of the air at all points around the wing. These velocity variations are caused by the disruption and turning of the air flowing past the wing. The measured pressure distribution on a typical wing looks like the following diagram:

A. Air approaching the top surface of the wing is compressed into the air above it as it moves upward. Then, as the top surface curves downward and away from the airstream, a low-pressure area is developed and the air above is pulled downward toward the back of the wing.

B. Air approaching the bottom surface of the wing is slowed, compressed and redirected in a downward path. As the air nears the rear of the wing, its speed and pressure gradually match that of the air coming over the top. The overall pressure effects encountered on the bottom of the wing are generally less pronounced than those on the top of the wing.

C. Lift component

D. Net force

E. Drag component

When you sum up all the pressures acting on the wing (all the way around), you end up with a net force on the wing. A portion of this lift goes into lifting the wing (lift component), and the rest goes into slowing the wing down (drag component). As the amount of airflow turned by a given wing is increased, the speed and pressure differences between the top and bottom surfaces become more pronounced, and this increases the lift. There are many ways to increase the lift of a wing, such as increasing the angle of attack or increasing the speed of the airflow. These methods and others are discussed in more detail later in this article.

It is important to realize that, unlike in the two popular explanations described earlier, lift depends on significant contributions from both the top and bottom wing surfaces. While neither of these explanations is perfect, they both hold some nuggets of validity. Other explanations hold that the unequal pressure distributions cause the flow deflection, and still others state that the exact opposite is true. In either case, it is clear that this is not a subject that can be explained easily using simplified theories.

Likewise, predicting the amount of lift created by wings has been an equally challenging task for engineers and designers in the past. In fact, for years, we have relied heavily on experimental data collected 70 to 80 years ago to aid in our initial designs of wings.

Calculating Lift Based on Experimental Test Results
In 1915, Congress created the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA -- a precursor of NASA). During the 1920s and 1930s, NACA conducted extensive wind tunnel tests on hundreds of airfoil shapes (wing cross-sectional shapes). The data collected allows engineers to predictably calculate the amount of lift and drag that airfoils can develop in various flight conditions.

The lift coefficient of an airfoil is a number that relates its lift-producing capability to air speed, air density, wing area and angle of attack -- the angle at which the airfoil is oriented with respect to the oncoming air flow (we'll discuss this in greater detail later in the article). The lift coefficient of a given airfoil depends upon the angle of attack.

 Image courtesy NASA The lift-curve slope of a NACA airfoil.

Here is the standard equation for calculating lift using a lift coefficient:

 L = lift Cl = lift coefficient (rho) = air density V = air velocity A = wing area

As an example, let's calculate the lift of an airplane with a wingspan of 40 feet and a chord length of 4 feet (wing area = 160 sq. ft.), moving at a speed of 100 mph (161 kph) at sea level (that's 147 feet, or 45 meters, per second!). Let's assume that the wing has a constant cross-section using an NACA 1408 airfoil shape, and that the plane is flying so that the angle of attack of the wing is 4 degrees.

We know that:

• A = 160 square feet
• (rho) = .0023769 slugs / cubic foot (at sea level on a standard day)
• V = 147 feet per second
• Cl = 0.55 (lift coefficient for NACA 1408 airfoil at 4 degrees AOA)
So let's calculate the lift:
• Lift = 0.55 x .5 x .0023769 x 147 x 147 x 160
• Lift = 2,260 lbs

Try your hand at airfoil design on NASA's Web site using a virtual wind tunnel.