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Following on from the last technical post on induced drag, this week i’ll give an overview of e, that quantity i left provisionally defined as 1 in the equation for induced drag;

.                                                C_{D_i} = \dfrac{{C_L}^2}{\pi{e\Lambda}}

\Lambda is the aspect ratio.

Planform is the word that describes the shape of a foil when looking at it’s broad side, for instance profile view of a boat’s keel.

As you cannot have discontinuities in the fluid medium , the lift produced does not stop at the end of the wing abruptly, rather it tapers off gradually. It follows that if the planform is rectangular (leading and trailing edges parallel to each other) the pressure will be less at the tip than over the root of the foil. In other words the tip will be underloaded due to the fact that the lift must taper off but the chord retains it full width all the way to the end.

lif distribution plots

Lift distribution along span of foils with varying taper ratios.

Similarly, for each planform with its varying rate of taper, there will be a corresponding lift distribution curve. For a triangular wing, as expected, the lift distribution tapers down more quickly than the lift distribution for a rectangular wing. However, it does not taper down as quickly as the surface does, meaning the tips are relatively overloaded.

One way to even out the lift coefficient along the entire span is to twist the wing along its length so that each section of wing is at a different angle of attack. In the case of a rectangular wing, one would have to twist it such that the underloaded tips are twisted to greater angle of attack than the root, in such a way that each section of wing is loaded the same.

For triangular wings, the tips are relatively overloaded, so the wing would have to be twisted the other way, with the angle of attack reducing towards the ends.

The problem with this is that the amount of twist needed depends on the overall coefficient of lift, which varies. Thus there is no way to create a twist that will correctly compensate for the variations of loading at all global lift coefficients.

Furthermore, Max Munk  determined that for the least possible induced drag for a given span, the downwash angle has to be constant across the whole span, so that the air stream immediately behind the wing is deflected in a perfectly uniform way.

Without getting too far into it, for uniform planar flows, an elliptical lift distribution curve will result in a constant downwash angle across the whole span. Also it will give the best possible value of e

It turns out that there is a planform somewhere between a rectangle (big tips) and a triangle (vanishing tips) that has a lift curve that matches the area distribution curve, thus making each piece of the wing work at the same coefficient of lift, or loading if you will, and that, at all global coefficients of  lift. In this case the local and global lift coefficient would in fact be equal at every position along the span.

An untwisted elliptical planform will produce the required elliptical lift distribution.

Another factor of planform is sweep; the foil can be swept back, or forwards, rather than being at right angles to the flow. This will also affect the value of e. Note that what is important in determining the sweep back angle of a foil is neither the chord midline, nor the leading edge, nor the trailing edge. It is the quarter chord line, about which one can consider as being the aerodynamic “center of lift” of any foil. Explaining the rather complex effects of sweepback and sweepforward will have to wait for another post though.

For now suffice to say, that in general, any sweep is a deviation from the optimum.

An early example of all this being put into practice is the wing of the british Spitfire. Observe not only the eliptical planform but also the practically straight quarter chord line.

spitfire planform

The famous elliptical wings of the spitfire

There is however another issue to take into consideration and one which may not evident at first. A pure elliptical wing, despite having the optimal area distribution, has a trailing edge that blends smoothly to the tip and on to the leading edge. Where one starts and the other ends is quite ambiguous, and this has the effect of pulling the tip vortex in towards the wing root. The tip vortex tends to follow the radius of the tip around towards the trailing edge until the angle becomes too great, forcing the vortex to break away. This makes the vortex separation unnescessarily messy and means the tip vortices are closer together than the actual extremity of the foil, thus reducing the effective span of the wing.

This would force a substitution of \Lambda_e for \Lambda with \Lambda_e \leq \Lambda

In order to get the tip vortex to peel away as far outboard as possible and neatly, requires a sharp corner between the tip and the trailing edge.  This then requires a little manipulation of the quarter chord line near the tip.

elliptical area distribution moded tip

Elliptical area distribution with straight quarter chord line modified near tip so trailing edge is straight and tip has vortex shedding corner.

In the above image i have manipulated the quarter chord line in such a way that the trailing edge straightens out at 0.8 of the span, this is close to being an optimum planform for planar (non twisted) foils. It loses a tiny bit of e   but maintains \Lambda_e = \Lambda , ie , as high as possible.

Vortex shedding wingsail

The 1988 US catamaran Stars and Stripes with a vortex shedding tip planform designed by Burt Rutan.
Image from François Chevalier

Notice too that in all this, that the triangular planform is about the worst possible area distribution. There exist empirical tables for the value of e and the further one deviates from an elliptical area distribution the lower e becomes, increasing induced drag. Yet it has been generally considered over the last fifty years or so that the bermudian (triangular) is naturally the best shape for going to windward etc. Marchaj did a number of wind tunnel tests on this and confirmed that the triangular planform is actually quite poor. This belief mainly stems from whatever is the current trend in raceboats, setting general ‘idealizations’ about what makes a boat ‘fast’, when in fact raceboats have to optimize to arbitrary rules just as much as actually go fast. This conflict inevitably produces design distortions that are completely innapropriate for sailboats that do not have to conform to any race rule.

To be fair, sailboat rig span loading is actually considerably more complex than that due to the fact that a sailboat rig is not span (height) constrained but rather heeling moment constrained, which imposes optimization along somewhat different lines than as described above. But we’ll come back to the finer points of optimum rig lift distribution in due course.

Jib contacts foredeck

The foot of the jib is in close contact with foredeck, effectively eliminating one of the airfoil tips.

The value for b or span is taken as the distance separating the separation points of the tip vortices. But what if the lower tip is closed off completely as pictured on the jib of the boat above? This would effectively eliminate the lower tip vortex. How to measure b? In that case, mirror theory states that one can model the three dimensional flow as being one half of the aerodynamic geometry and its mirror image as reflected through the fluid boundary, which in this case is the surface of the water. So b becomes from the upper tip vortex down to its mirror image (underwater).

In simple terms this means that closing off the gap doubles the effective span and thus also doubles the effective aspect ratio, halving induced drag.

This is a vast increase in aspect ratio and one that comes at no cost in heeling moment, so eliminating this gap is the single most effective way of improving a sailboat’s rig performance. This applies to not just jibs, but every sail. Of course, there are plenty of other reasons that may make it impractical to close off the gap completely, but if performance is high on the list of priorities, every effort should me made to reduce the gap as much as possible, for even if the gap is not reduced to the point of having a significant effect on induced drag, it still increases aspect ratio and sail effectiveness at no cost.

downwash wake

Downwash wake
Photographer Paul Bowen, courtesy of Cessna Aircraft, Co.

I remember being on a neighbour’s boat when i was nine or ten and the owner of the boat showed me a boomerang he had sculpted. I had never seen one of these things so he satisfied my curiosity by explaining what it was for and how it worked. He then went on to explain how lift is produced by an airfoil; the air gets split into two parts, the part that goes over the top of the wing and the part that passes below. Since the top is curved (and therefore longer than the bottom) and the two flows need to meet back up again at the same time at the back the top flow needs to go faster. Further, since the faster the stream the lower the pressure, the pressure over the top of the wing decreases, thus “sucking” the top of the foil up.

Unfortunately, this often repeated explanation for lift is rather misleading, so i’ll set out here to give a more thorough explanation.

Basic aerodynamics 101;

Lift is defined as being the total force experienced by an object in a fluid flow orthogonal to the far field flow direction. In other words, the total force at ninety degrees to the relative motion between the undisturbed fluid and the object.

In order to have a force one must have a counter force (Newton’s third law; action and reaction) so the air that is pushing the foil up, means that the foil is also pushing the air down.
Furthermore, we have by Newton’s second law,

F = \dfrac{d(mv)}{dt}
Force is equal to the time rate of change of momentum.
This means that as the foil moves through the fluid it is constantly deflecting the flow downwards, imparting new momentum to it continually and it is this that creates the lift force.
So whatever happened to the longer path and the pressure drop?

Flow upper and lower wing

Upper and lower flow past lifting foil;
the fluid particles never meet up again


Well, this is also happening, however it is entirely false to assume that the fluid particles have to meet up again behind the wing. They never do, unless there is no lift and no viscocity and no turbulence. In fact the flow over the top of the wing is much faster than necessary to make up the difference in upper and lower path length.
This actually makes sense when you think that the passage of the wing has deflected air downwards behind it, thus pulling back over the top of the wing the required extra air and similarly, slowing down the air that is passing underneath.

Now we also have Bernoulli’s equation for incompressible flow;

P + \frac{1}{2}\rho{U^2} = const

where \rho is fluid density, U is flow velocity and P is pressure.

This is a conservation of energy equation since pressure is a form of potential energy and the second term is the so called “dynamic pressure”, which is the kinetic energy. Therefore, it is indeed true that there is a lowering of pressure over the top of the wing, although there is also a raise in pressure over most of the underside as well.

pressure distribution

Typical pressure distribution upper and lower surface

In the above image the fractional distance along the chord (line connecting leading and trailing edges) is on the x axis and the y axis is negative coefficient of pressure. I generated a Naca 64209 foil and ran Javafoil with the foil at ten degrees to obtain this graph.

Of course the total force experienced by any object in a fluid flow is the integral of the pressure (normal) and shear (tangential) forces upon the wetted skin.


How it all works in practice.

We need to introduce the concept of circulation. Circulation is just what it sounds like; the air circulates around, in this case the foil. It is a key concept to understand. Imagine a vortex spinning around the foil such that the axis of rotation of the vortex runs from wingtip to wingtip. Now imagine adding, superimposing, the straight line flow to this vortex; what happens is that the flow is accelerated on one side, decellerated on the other, and deflected one way ahead of the foil, the other way behind.

Mathematically this is;

\Gamma = -\oint_C V\cdot{ds}

Which is the closed line integral (enclosing the foil), V is the velocity of the fluid element and ds is the differential length along the loop.


from Marchaj “Aero/HydroDynamics of Sailing”

One may object that this seems to imply that the upwash (air being sucked upwards towards the low pressure zone above the wing) cancels out the downwash behind the wing thus leaving no overall momentum change to the fluid stream, but in fact the downwash is always twice as great as the upwash.

To understand why this is so, one must go back to the beginning of the path of motion of the foil.

The following images show the initial conditions when the wing commences its path;

starting vortex

from Marchaj “Aero/HydroDynamics of Sailing”

What happens is that as the foil begins to move forward at an angle of attack, the air tries to make up the short path difference by curling around the trailing edge, initiating a vortex which quickly gets left behind but which is the exact reciprocal of the wing’s bounding vortex and which forces the establishment of the bounding vortex itself. Only like so can the overall circulation in the total airmass remain zero, as it must be according to the law of conservation of angular momentum.

Therefore, the downwash is actually due to the sum of the two vortices, whereas the upwash ahead of the wing is proper only to the wing’s bounding vortex. And when tacking a sailboat, the circulation decays to zero, only to re-establish itself in the opposite direction by shedding a new starting vortex behind.


So, to recap;

The lift created by a foil or other lifting body always involves imparting by means of an effective angle of attack of the lifting body, new momentum to the fluid flow, in  a direction orthogonal to the stream and opposite to the direction of the lift force.

The mechanism for achieving this invariably involves circulation.

This circulation imposes a pressure distribution on the foil; low pressure above and high pressure below.


Some astute readers may object to me using an equation for incompressible flows (Bernoulli’s eqn) when air is in fact compressible. This is a very good point, but the reason that it is valid is because for small mach numbers (the ratio of flow speed to the speed of sound) , less than ~0.3, the amount of compression or expansion air undergoes is so small that it can be taken out of the equations with negligible loss of accuracy, greatly simplifying the mathematics.