Stall with Pitching Foils

For a fixed-wing aircraft, stall – the point where airflow around the wing separates and lift is lost – is an enemy. It’s the precursor to a stomach-turning freefall for the airplane and its contents. But the story is rather different when the wing is actively pitching through these high angles of attack. In this case, you get what’s known as dynamic stall, illustrated in three consecutive snapshots above.

In the top image, the flow has clearly separated from the upper surface of the wing, but this isn’t a cause for panic. As the middle image shows, there’s a vortex that’s formed in that separated region and it’s moving backward along the wing as the angle of attack continues to increase. That vortex causes a strong low-pressure region on the upper surface of the wing, allowing it to maintain lift.

In the final image, the vortex is leaving the wing, taking its low-pressure zone with it. This is the point where the pitching wing loses its lift, but if the vortex’s departure is immediately followed by a pitch down to lower angles of attack, the aircraft will recover lift and carry on. (Image credit: S. Schreck and M. Robinson, source)

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