Lift Over Wings

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One of the most vexing topics for fluid dynamicists and their audiences is the subject of how wings generate lift. As discussed in the video above, there are a number of common but flawed explanations for this. Perhaps the most common one argues that the shape of the wing requires air moving over the top to move farther in the same amount of time, therefore moving faster. The flaw here, as my advisor used to say, is that there is no Conservation of Who-You-Were-Sitting-Next-To-When-You-Started. Nothing requires that air moving over the top and bottom of a wing meet up again. In fact, the air moving over the top of the wing outpaces air moving underneath it.

In the Sixty Symbols video, the conclusion presented is that any complete explanation requires use of three conservation principles: mass, momentum, and energy. In essence, though, this is like saying that airplanes fly because the Navier-Stokes equations say they do. It’s not a terribly satisfying answer to someone uninterested in the mathematics.

Part of the reason that so many explanations exist – here’s one the video didn’t touch on using circulation – is that no one has presented a simple, intuitive, and complete explanation. This is not to say that we don’t understand lift on fixed wings – we do! It’s just tough to simplify without oversimplifying.

Here’s the bottom line, though: the shape of the wing forces air moving around it to change direction and move downward. By Newton’s 3rd law (equal and opposite reactions), that means the air pushes the wing up, thereby creating lift. (Video credit: Sixty Symbols)

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