High Speed Flight (Part Three) Sweepback and Mach Buffet Boundaries


Most of the difficulties of transonic flight are associated with shock wave induced flow separation. Therefore, any means of delaying or alleviating the shock induced separation improves aerodynamic performance. One method is wing sweepback. Sweepback theory is based upon the concept that it is only the component of the airflow perpendicular to the leading edge of the wing that affects pressure distribution and formation of shock waves. [Figure 5-68]

Figure 5-68. Sweepback effect.

Figure 5-68. Sweepback effect.

On a straight wing aircraft, the airflow strikes the wing leading edge at 90°, and its full impact produces pressure and lift. A wing with sweepback is struck by the same airflow at an angle smaller than 90°. This airflow on the swept wing has the effect of persuading the wing into believing that it is flying slower than it really is; thus the formation of shock waves is delayed. Advantages of wing sweep include an increase in critical Mach number, force divergence Mach number, and the Mach number at which drag rise peaks. In other words, sweep delays the onset of compressibility effects.


The Mach number that produces a sharp change in coefficient of drag is termed the “force divergence” Mach number and, for most airfoils, usually exceeds the critical Mach number by 5 to 10 percent. At this speed, the airflow separation induced by shock wave formation can create significant variations in the drag, lift, or pitching moment coefficients. In addition to the delay of the onset of compressibility effects, sweepback reduces the magnitude in the changes of drag, lift, or moment coefficients. In other words, the use of sweepback “softens” the force divergence.

A disadvantage of swept wings is that they tend to stall at the wingtips rather than at the wing roots. [Figure 5-69] This is because the boundary layer tends to flow spanwise toward the tips and to separate near the leading edges. Because the tips of a swept wing are on the aft part of the wing (behind the CL), a wingtip stall causes the CL to move forward on the wing, forcing the nose to rise further. The tendency for tip stall is greatest when wing sweep and taper are combined.

Figure 5-69. Wingtip pre-stall.

Figure 5-69. Wingtip pre-stall.

The stall situation can be aggravated by a T-tail configuration, which affords little or no pre-stall warning in the form of tail control surface buffet. [Figure 5-70] The T-tail, being above the wing wake remains effective even after the wing has begun to stall, allowing the pilot to inadvertently drive the wing into a deeper stall at a much greater AOA. If the horizontal tail surfaces then become buried in the wing’s wake, the elevator may lose all effectiveness, making it impossible to reduce pitch attitude and break the stall. In the pre-stall and immediate post-stall regimes, the lift/drag qualities of a swept wing aircraft (specifically the enormous increase in drag at low speeds) can cause an increasingly descending flight path with no change in pitch attitude, further increasing the AOA. In this situation, without reliable AOA information, a nose-down pitch attitude with an increasing airspeed is no guarantee that recovery has been affected, and up-elevator movement at this stage may merely keep the aircraft stalled.

Figure 5-70. T-tail stall.

Figure 5-70. T-tail stall.

It is a characteristic of T-tail aircraft to pitch up viciously when stalled in extreme nose-high attitudes, making recovery difficult or violent. The stick pusher inhibits this type of stall. At approximately one knot above stall speed, pre-programmed stick forces automatically move the stick forward, preventing the stall from developing. A G-limiter may also be incorporated into the system to prevent the pitch down generated by the stick pusher from imposing excessive loads on the aircraft. A “stick shaker,” on the other hand, provides stall warning when the airspeed is five to seven percent above stall speed.


Mach Buffet Boundaries

Mach buffet is a function of the speed of the airflow over the wing—not necessarily the speed of the aircraft. Any time that too great a lift demand is made on the wing, whether from too fast an airspeed or from too high an AOA near the MMO, the “high-speed” buffet occurs. There are also occasions when the buffet can be experienced at much lower speeds known as the “low-speed Mach buffet.”

An aircraft flown at a speed too slow for its weight and altitude necessitating a high AOA is the most likely situation to cause a low-speed Mach buffet. This very high AOA has the effect of increasing airflow velocity over the upper surface of the wing until the same effects of the shock waves and buffet occur as in the high-speed buffet situation. The AOA of the wing has the greatest effect on inducing the Mach buffet at either the high-speed or low-speed boundaries for the aircraft. The conditions that increase the AOA, the speed of the airflow over the wing, and chances of Mach buffet are:

  • High altitudes—the higher an aircraft flies, the thinner the air and the greater the AOA required to produce the lift needed to maintain level flight.
  • Heavy weights—the heavier the aircraft, the greater the lift required of the wing, and all other factors being equal, the greater the AOA.
  • G loading—an increase in the G loading on the aircraft has the same effect as increasing the weight of the aircraft. Whether the increase in G forces is caused by turns, rough control usage, or turbulence, the effect of increasing the wing’s AOA is the same.

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