Today we’re taking a look at a concept related to high speed flight, shock waves, with an excerpt from the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge (FAA-H-8083-25B). During flight, a wing produces lift by accelerating the airflow over the upper surface. This accelerated air can, and does, reach sonic speeds even though the aircraft itself may be flying subsonic. At some extreme angles of attack (AOA), in some aircraft, the speed of the air over the top surface of the wing may be double the aircraft’s speed. It is therefore entirely possible to have both supersonic and subsonic airflow on an aircraft at the same time. When flow velocities reach sonic speeds at some location on an aircraft (such as the area of maximum camber on the wing), further acceleration results in the onset of compressibility effects, such as shock wave formation, drag increase, buffeting, stability, and control difficulties. Subsonic flow principles are invalid at all speeds above this point.
When an airplane flies at subsonic speeds, the air ahead is “warned” of the airplane’s coming by a pressure change transmitted ahead of the airplane at the speed of sound. Because of this warning, the air begins to move aside before the airplane arrives and is prepared to let it pass easily. When the airplane’s speed reaches the speed of sound, the pressure change can no longer warn the air ahead because the airplane is keeping up with its own pressure waves. Rather, the air particles pile up in front of the airplane causing a sharp decrease in the flow velocity directly in front of the airplane with a corresponding increase in air pressure and density.
As the airplane’s speed increases beyond the speed of sound, the pressure and density of the compressed air ahead of it increase, the area of compression extending some distance ahead of the airplane. At some point in the airstream, the air particles are completely undisturbed, having had no advanced warning of the airplane’s approach, and in the next instant the same air particles are forced to undergo sudden and drastic changes in temperature, pressure, density, and velocity. The boundary between the undisturbed air and the region of compressed air is called a shock or “compression” wave. This same type of wave is formed whenever a supersonic airstream is slowed to subsonic without a change in direction, such as when the airstream is accelerated to sonic speed over the cambered portion of a wing, and then decelerated to subsonic speed as the area of maximum camber is passed. A shock wave forms as a boundary between the supersonic and subsonic ranges.
Whenever a shock wave forms perpendicular to the airflow, it is termed a “normal” shock wave, and the flow immediately behind the wave is subsonic. A supersonic airstream passing through a normal shock wave experiences these changes:
- The airstream is slowed to subsonic.
- The airflow immediately behind the shock wave does not change direction.
- The static pressure and density of the airstream behind the wave is greatly increased.
- The energy of the airstream (indicated by total pressure—dynamic plus static) is greatly reduced.
Shock wave formation causes an increase in drag. One of the principal effects of a shock wave is the formation of a dense high pressure region immediately behind the wave. The instability of the high pressure region, and the fact that part of the velocity energy of the airstream is converted to heat as it flows through the wave, is a contributing factor in the drag increase, but the drag resulting from airflow separation is much greater. If the shock wave is strong, the boundary layer may not have sufficient kinetic energy to withstand airflow separation. The drag incurred in the transonic region due to shock wave formation and airflow separation is known as “wave drag.” When speed exceeds the critical Mach number by about 10 percent, wave drag increases sharply. A considerable increase in thrust (power) is required to increase flight speed beyond this point into the supersonic range where, depending on the airfoil shape and the AOA, the boundary layer may reattach.
Normal shock waves form on the wing’s upper surface and form an additional area of supersonic flow and a normal shock wave on the lower surface. As flight speed approaches the speed of sound, the areas of supersonic flow enlarge and the shock waves move nearer the trailing edge.
Associated with “drag rise” are buffet (known as Mach buffet), trim, and stability changes and a decrease in control force effectiveness. The loss of lift due to airflow separation results in a loss of downwash and a change in the position of the center pressure on the wing. Airflow separation produces a turbulent wake behind the wing, which causes the tail surfaces to buffet (vibrate). The nose-up and nose-down pitch control provided by the horizontal tail is dependent on the downwash behind the wing. Thus, an increase in downwash decreases the horizontal tail’s pitch control effectiveness since it effectively increases the AOA that the tail surface is seeing. Movement of the wing center of pressure (CP) affects the wing pitching moment. If the CP moves aft, a diving moment referred to as “Mach tuck” or “tuck under” is produced, and if it moves forward, a nose-up moment is produced. This is the primary reason for the development of the T-tail configuration on many turbine-powered aircraft, which places the horizontal stabilizer as far as practical from the turbulence of the wings.