Flow on Commercial Wings

Oil flow pattern of air flow over a swept wing

Even in an era of supercomputers, there is a place for quick and dirty methods of flow visualization. Here we see a model of a swept wing like those seen on many commercial airliners. It was painted with a layer of fluorescent oil, then placed in a wind tunnel and subjected to flow. As air blows across the model, it moves the oil, leaving behind streaks that show how air near the surface moves. 

We can see, for example, that near the fuselage, the air flows mostly front to back across the wing. That’s what we expect, especially for a wing generating lift. But further out on the wing, the flow moves mostly along the wing, not across it. There’s also a distinctive line running just a short ways behind the leading edge on this outer section of wing. It looks as though air flowing over the wing separated at this point, leaving disordered and unhelpful flow behind. It’s likely that the model was tested at an angle of attack where the outer section of the wing was beginning to stall. (Image credit: ARA)

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