Aerodynamics: Cruise Flight

Cruise flight centers on two basic principles: how far we can fly, and for how long. How far we can fly is defined as the aircraft’s range. How long we can fly is defined as endurance. Today’s post is an excerpt from our textbook Aerodynamics for Aviators.

When flying, we generally consider range in two ways:

  1. Maximizing the distance we fly for a given fuel load.
  2. Traveling a specified distance while burning minimum fuel.

It’s important to understand that range and endurance are not the same. Range relates to distance, endurance relates to time. The formula for endurance is:

endurance = hours ÷ fuel

Hours is simply flight time expressed in whatever units you want: hours, minutes or seconds. Fuel can be expressed in gallons or pounds. A pilot who wants to achieve maximum endurance would slow the aircraft to the minimum power required speed. Figure 5-24 shows the minimum power point being the lowest point in the drag curve.


Figure 5-24. Maximum endurance.

If the aircraft were to slow even further, to point A, drag would increase rapidly, more power would be required, and the engine would burn more fuel. If the aircraft were to accelerate above point B, drag also increases, which increases fuel burn. As you can see, flying at maximum endurance speed is not practical in the real world; you may save fuel but it would take forever to get to the destination. This speed is also not practical for operations such as holding because it is generally close to stall. From a practical standpoint, endurance comes from the selection of a cruise power setting of 55%, 65%, or 75% endurance charts. The point of this type of flying is generally to minimize or eliminate fuel stops (very time consuming) along the route, or to minimize fuel burn for cost purposes—not necessarily to stay aloft for hours on end.

Range can be broken down into two parts: specific range and total range. An easy way to understand the difference is to use a car trip scenario. If I have a car that has a 20 gallon fuel tank and gets 30 miles per gallon, I can travel 600 miles on one tank of gas. The specific range in this example is 30 miles per gallon, and the total range is 600 miles. In an airplane, specific range is how many nautical miles you can travel on one gallon or pound of fuel. The total range is how far the airplane can fly with the remaining fuel load on board the aircraft. The definition for specific range is:

specific range = NM ÷ gallons of fuel (Note: pounds can be inserted for gallons.)

Specific range is affected by three things: (1) aircraft weight, (2) altitude, and (3) configuration. The maximum range of the aircraft can be found at L/DMAX. Unlike endurance, which is found on the drag curve where minimum power is required, maximum range is found where the ratio of speed to power required is the greatest. This is located on the graph by drawing a tangent line from the origin to the power required curve (Figure 5-24). Another way to think about this is that as you move from the origin point along the tangent line toward L/DMAX you increase airspeed at a greater rate than fuel burn (think of the ratio). At L/DMAX, the ratio of fuel to airspeed should be 1. At any speed above L/DMAX, the fuel burn ratio increases at a greater rate than the airspeed. Therefore, L/DMAX is the point where the speed-to-power ratio required is the greatest.

Another aspect of range that we need to examine is the effect of weight on range. Because L/DMAX occurs at a specific angle of attack, and most general aviation airplanes do not have AOA indicators, the airspeed has to be varied as weight changes to maintain a constant AOA. Figure 5-25 illustrates this: as weight increases, the speed must be increased to maintain the AOA. This is because as weight is increased, the AOA must be increased to produce more lift; the only way to lower the AOA is to increase speed. As weight decreases, the speed must decrease. The reasoning is that as the aircraft becomes lighter, the AOA is lowered to compensate for less weight; the only way to increase AOA is to reduce speed (Figure 5-25).


Figure 5-25. The effect of weight on range.

The effect of altitude on range can be seen in Figure 5-26. Flights operating at high altitude require a higher TAS, which will require more power.


Figure 5-26. The effect of altitude on range.

Another aspect of cruise flight relating to range and endurance, one that is often not talked about in textbooks, is cruise performance. From a practical standpoint, the pilot will not fly the aircraft at maximum endurance or range—it is just too slow. In reality, pilots often operate propeller-driven airplanes at 55%, 65%, or 75% best power or endurance.

In order to calculate how to get to your destination as fast as possible, find the highest true airspeed for your aircraft. Most fixed-gear single-engine aircraft that cruise in the 110–130 knot range will have their highest TAS in the 6,000 to 7,000-foot range. This is a good place to start; however, the wind, terrain, and the need for fuel stops will dictate the altitude and speed at which the aircraft ultimately flies.

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