Transonic Flow

In the transonic speed regime the overall speed of an airplane is less than Mach 1 but some parts of the flow around the aircraft break the speed of sound. The photo above shows a schlieren photograph of flow over an airfoil at transonic speeds. The nearly vertical lines are shock waves on the upper and lower surfaces of the airfoil. Although the freestream speed in the tunnel is less than Mach 1 upstream of the airfoil, air accelerates over the curved surface of airfoil and locally exceeds the speed of sound. When that supersonic flow cannot be sustained, a shock wave occurs; flow to the right of the shock wave is once again subsonic. It’s also worth noting the bright white turbulent flow along the upper surface of the airfoil after the shock. This is the boundary layer, which can often separate from the wing in transonic flows, causing a marked increase in drag and decrease in lift. Most commercial airliners operate at transonic Mach numbers and their geometry is specifically designed to mitigate some of the challenges of this speed regime.  (Image credit: NASA; via D. Baals and W. Corliss)

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