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so, how is lift actually generated? i’ve been going through Anderson’s Introduction to Flight (6th Ed.) and while it offers the derivation of various equations very thoroughly, it barely touches on why lift is generated, or how camber contributes to the increase of C(L)

This is a really good question to ask. There are a lot of different explanations for lift out there (and some of the common ones are incorrect). The main thing to know is that a difference in pressure across the wing–low pressure over the top and higher pressure below–creates the net upward force we call lift. It’s when you ask why there’s a pressure difference across the wing that explanations tend to start diverging. To be clear, aerodynamicists don’t disagree about what produces lift – we just tend to argue about which physical explanation (as opposed to just doing the math) makes the most sense. So here are a couple of options:

Newton’s 3rd Law

Newton’s third law states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If you look at flow over an airfoil, air approaching the airfoil is angled upward, and the air leaving the aifoil is angled downward. In order to change the direction of the air’s flow, the airfoil must have exerted a downward force on the air. By Newton’s third law, this means the air also exerted an upward force–lift–on the airfoil.

The downward force a wing exerts on the air becomes especially obvious when you actually watch the air after a plane passes:

Circulation

This one can be harder to understand. Circulation is a quantity related to vorticity, and it has to do with how the direction of velocity changes around a closed curve. Circulation creates lift (which I discuss in some more detail here.) How does an airfoil create circulation, though? When an airfoil starts at rest, there is no vorticity and no circulation. As you see in the video above, as soon as the airfoil moves, it generates a starting vortex. In order for the total circulation to remain zero, this means that the airfoil must carry with it a second, oppositely rotating vortex. For an airfoil moving right to left, that carried vortex will spin clockwise, imparting a larger velocity to air flowing over the top of the wing and slowing down the air that moves under the wing. From Bernoulli’s principle, we know that faster moving air has a lower pressure, so this explains why the air pressure is lower over the top of the wing.

Asymmetric Flow and Bernoulli’s Principle

There are two basic types of airfoils – symmetric ones (like the one in the first picture above) and asymmetric, or cambered, airfoils (like the one in the image immediately above this). Symmetric airfoils only generate lift when at an angle of attack. Otherwise, the flow around them is symmetric and there’s no pressure difference and no lift. Cambered airfoils, by virtue of their asymmetry, can generate lift at zero angle of attack. Their variations in curvature cause air flowing around them to experience different forces, which in turn causes differing pressures along the top and the bottom of the airfoil surface. A fluid particle that travels over the upper surface encounters a large radius of curvature, which strongly accelerates the fluid and creates fast, low-pressure flow. Air moving across the bottom surface experiences a lesser curvature, does not accelerate as much, and, therefore, remains slower and at a higher pressure compared to the upper surface.

(Image credit: M. Belisle/Wikimedia; National Geographic/BBC2; O. Cleynen/Wikimedia; video credit: J. Capecelatro et al.)

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