High Speed Flight (Part One)

Subsonic Versus Supersonic Flow

In subsonic aerodynamics, the theory of lift is based upon the forces generated on a body and a moving gas (air) in which it is immersed. At speeds of approximately 260 knots or less, air can be considered incompressible in that, at a fixed altitude, its density remains nearly constant while its pressure varies. Under this assumption, air acts the same as water and is classified as a fluid. Subsonic aerodynamic theory also assumes the effects of viscosity (the property of a fluid that tends to prevent motion of one part of the fluid with respect to another) are negligible and classifies air as an ideal fluid conforming to the principles of ideal-fluid aerodynamics such as continuity, Bernoulli’s principle, and circulation.


In reality, air is compressible and viscous. While the effects of these properties are negligible at low speeds, compressibility effects in particular become increasingly important as speed increases. Compressibility (and to a lesser extent viscosity) is of paramount importance at speeds approaching the speed of sound. In these speed ranges, compressibility causes a change in the density of the air around an aircraft.

During flight, a wing produces lift by accelerating the airflow over the upper surface. This accelerated air can, and does, reach sonic speeds even though the aircraft itself may be flying subsonic. At some extreme AOAs, in some aircraft, the speed of the air over the top surface of the wing may be double the aircraft’s speed. It is therefore entirely possible to have both supersonic and subsonic airflow on an aircraft at the same time. When flow velocities reach sonic speeds at some location on an aircraft (such as the area of maximum camber on the wing), further acceleration results in the onset of compressibility effects, such as shock wave formation, drag increase, buffeting, stability, and control difficulties. Subsonic flow principles are invalid at all speeds above this point. [Figure 5-64]

Figure 5-64. Wing airflow.

Figure 5-64. Wing airflow.

Speed Ranges

The speed of sound varies with temperature. Under standard temperature conditions of 15 °C, the speed of sound at sea level is 661 knots. At 40,000 feet, where the temperature is –55 °C, the speed of sound decreases to 574 knots. In high-speed flight and/or high-altitude flight, the measurement of speed is expressed in terms of a “Mach number”—the ratio of the true airspeed of the aircraft to the speed of sound in the same atmospheric conditions. An aircraft traveling at the speed of sound is traveling at Mach 1.0. Aircraft speed regimes are defined approximately as follows:

Subsonic—Mach numbers below 0.75
Transonic—Mach numbers from 0.75 to 1.20
Supersonic—Mach numbers from 1.20 to 5.00
Hypersonic—Mach numbers above 5.00

While flights in the transonic and supersonic ranges are common occurrences for military aircraft, civilian jet aircraft normally operate in a cruise speed range of Mach 0.7 to Mach 0.90.


The speed of an aircraft in which airflow over any part of the aircraft or structure under consideration first reaches (but does not exceed) Mach 1.0 is termed “critical Mach number” or “Mach Crit.” Thus, critical Mach number is the boundary between subsonic and transonic flight and is largely dependent on the wing and airfoil design. Critical Mach number is an important point in transonic flight. When shock waves form on the aircraft, airflow separation followed by buffet and aircraft control difficulties can occur. Shock waves, buffet, and airflow separation take place above critical Mach number. A jet aircraft typically is most efficient when cruising at or near its critical Mach number. At speeds 5–10 percent above the critical Mach number, compressibility effects begin. Drag begins to rise sharply. Associated with the “drag rise” are buffet, trim, and stability changes and a decrease in control surface effectiveness. This is the point of “drag divergence.” [Figure 5-65]

Figure 5-65. Critical Mach.

Figure 5-65. Critical Mach.

VMO/MMO is defined as the maximum operating limit speed. VMO is expressed in knots calibrated airspeed (KCAS), while MMO is expressed in Mach number. The VMO limit is usually associated with operations at lower altitudes and deals with structural loads and flutter. The MMO limit is associated with operations at higher altitudes and is usually more concerned with compressibility effects and flutter. At lower altitudes, structural loads and flutter are of concern; at higher altitudes, compressibility effects and flutter are of concern.

Adherence to these speeds prevents structural problems due to dynamic pressure or flutter, degradation in aircraft control response due to compressibility effects (e.g., Mach Tuck, aileron reversal, or buzz), and separated airflow due to shock waves resulting in loss of lift or vibration and buffet. Any of these phenomena could prevent the pilot from being able to adequately control the aircraft.

For example, an early civilian jet aircraft had a VMO limit of 306 KCAS up to approximately FL 310 (on a standard day). At this altitude (FL 310), an MMO of 0.82 was approximately equal to 306 KCAS. Above this altitude, an MMO of 0.82 always equaled a KCAS less than 306 KCAS and, thus, became the operating limit as you could not reach the VMO limit without first reaching the MMO limit. For example, at FL 380, an MMO of 0.82 is equal to 261 KCAS.


Mach Number Versus Airspeed

It is important to understand how airspeed varies with Mach number. As an example, consider how the stall speed of a jet transport aircraft varies with an increase in altitude. The increase in altitude results in a corresponding drop in air density and outside temperature. Suppose this jet transport is in the clean configuration (gear and flaps up) and weighs 550,000 pounds. The aircraft might stall at approximately 152 KCAS at sea level. This is equal to (on a standard day) a true velocity of 152 KTAS and a Mach number of 0.23. At FL 380, the aircraft will still stall at approximately 152 KCAS, but the true velocity is about 287 KTAS with a Mach number of 0.50.

Although the stalling speed has remained the same for our purposes, both the Mach number and TAS have increased. With increasing altitude, the air density has decreased; this requires a faster true airspeed in order to have the same pressure sensed by the pitot tube for the same KCAS, or KIAS (for our purposes, KCAS and KIAS are relatively close to each other). The dynamic pressure the wing experiences at FL 380 at 287 KTAS is the same as at sea level at 152 KTAS. However, it is flying at higher Mach number.

Another factor to consider is the speed of sound. A decrease in temperature in a gas results in a decrease in the speed of sound. Thus, as the aircraft climbs in altitude with outside temperature dropping, the speed of sound is dropping. At sea level, the speed of sound is approximately 661 KCAS, while at FL 380 it is 574 KCAS. Thus, for our jet transport aircraft, the stall speed (in KTAS) has gone from 152 at sea level to 287 at FL 380. Simultaneously, the speed of sound (in KCAS) has decreased from 661 to 574 and the Mach number has increased from 0.23 (152 KTAS divided by 661 KTAS) to 0.50 (287 KTAS divided by 574 KTAS). All the while, the KCAS for stall has remained constant at 152. This describes what happens when the aircraft is at a constant KCAS with increasing altitude, but what happens when the pilot keeps Mach constant during the climb? In normal jet flight operations, the climb is at 250 KIAS (or higher (e.g. heavy)) to 10,000 feet and then at a specified en route climb airspeed (about 330 if a DC10) until reaching an altitude in the “mid-twenties” where the pilot then climbs at a constant Mach number to cruise altitude.

Assuming for illustration purposes that the pilot climbs at a MMO of 0.82 from sea level up to FL 380. KCAS goes from 543 to 261. The KIAS at each altitude would follow the same behavior and just differ by a few knots. Recall from the earlier discussion that the speed of sound is decreasing with the drop in temperature as the aircraft climbs. The Mach number is simply the ratio of the true airspeed to the speed of sound at flight conditions. The significance of this is that at a constant Mach number climb, the KCAS (and KTAS or KIAS as well) is falling off.

If the aircraft climbed high enough at this constant MMO with decreasing KIAS, KCAS, and KTAS, it would begin to approach its stall speed. At some point, the stall speed of the aircraft in Mach number could equal the MMO of the aircraft, and the pilot could neither slow down (without stalling) nor speed up (without exceeding the max operating speed of the aircraft). This has been dubbed the “coffin corner.”

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