Review of Basic Aerodynamics (Part One)

The Wing

To understand aerodynamic forces, a pilot needs to understand basic terminology associated with airfoils. Figure 4-1 illustrates a typical airfoil.

Figure 4-1. The airfoil.

Figure 4-1. The airfoil.

The chord line is the straight line intersecting the leading and trailing edges of the airfoil, and the term chord refers to the chord line longitudinal length (length as viewed from the side).

The mean camber is a line located halfway between the upper and lower surfaces. Viewing the wing edgewise, the mean camber connects with the chord line at each end. The mean camber is important because it assists in determining aerodynamic qualities of an airfoil. The measurement of the maximum camber; inclusive of both the displacement of the mean camber line and its linear measurement from the end of the chord line, provide properties useful in evaluating airfoils.


Review of Basic Aerodynamics

The instrument pilot must understand the relationship and differences between several factors that affect the performance of an aircraft in flight. Also, it is crucial to understand how the aircraft reacts to various control and power changes, because the environment in which instrument pilots fly has inherent hazards not found in visual flying. The basis for this understanding is found in the four forces acting on an aircraft and Newton’s Three Laws of Motion.

Relative Wind is the direction of the airflow with respect to an airfoil.

Angle of Attack (AOA) is the acute angle measured between the relative wind, or flightpath and the chord of the airfoil. [Figure 4-2]

Figure 4-2. Angle of attack and relative wind.

Figure 4-2. Angle of attack and relative wind.

Flightpath is the course or track along which the aircraft is flying or is intended to be flown.

The Four Forces

The four basic forces [Figure 4-3] acting upon an aircraft in flight are lift, weight, thrust, and drag.

Figure 4-3. The four forces and three axes of rotation.

Figure 4-3. The four forces and three axes of rotation.


Lift is a component of the total aerodynamic force on an airfoil and acts perpendicular to the relative wind. Relative wind is the direction of the airflow with respect to an airfoil. This force acts straight up from the average (called mean) center of pressure (CP), which is called the center of lift. It should be noted that it is a point along the chord line of an airfoil through which all aerodynamic forces are considered to act. The magnitude of lift varies proportionately with speed, air density, shape and size of the airfoil, and AOA. During straight-and-level flight, lift and weight are equal.


Weight is the force exerted by an aircraft from the pull of gravity. It acts on an aircraft through its center of gravity (CG) and is straight down. This should not be confused with the center of lift, which can be significantly different from the CG. As an aircraft is descending, weight is greater than lift.



Thrust is the forward force produced by the powerplant/ propeller or rotor. It opposes or overcomes the force of drag. As a general rule, it acts parallel to the longitudinal axis.


Drag is the net aerodynamic force parallel to the relative wind and is generally a sum of two components: induced drag and parasite drag.

Induced Drag

Induced drag is caused from the creation of lift and increases with AOA. Therefore, if the wing is not producing lift, induced drag is zero. Conversely, induced drag decreases with airspeed.

Parasite Drag

Parasite drag is all drag not caused from the production of lift. Parasite drag is created by displacement of air by the aircraft, turbulence generated by the airfoil, and the hindrance of airflow as it passes over the surface of the aircraft or components. All of these forces create drag not from the production of lift but the movement of an object through an air mass. Parasite drag increases with speed and includes skin friction drag, interference drag, and form drag.

• Skin Friction Drag

Covering the entire “wetted” surface of the aircraft is a thin layer of air called a boundary layer. The air molecules on the surface have zero velocity in relation to the surface; however, the layer just above moves over the stagnant molecules below because it is pulled along by a third layer close to the free stream of air. The velocities of the layers increase as the distance from the surface increases until free stream velocity is reached, but all are affected by the free stream. The distance (total) between the skin surface and where free stream velocity is reached is called the boundary layer. At subsonic levels the cumulative layers are about the thickness of a playing card, yet their motion sliding over one another creates a drag force. This force retards motion due to the viscosity of the air and is called skin friction drag. Because skin friction drag is related to a large surface area its affect on smaller aircraft is small versus large transport aircraft where skin friction drag may be considerable.

Flight Literacy Recommends

William Kershner's Instrument Flight Manual - Everything you need to know to obtain an FAA instrument rating, or a great refresher for existing instrument pilots. Covered subjects include airplane performance and basic instrument flying, navigation and communications, clearances, planning IFR flight, and carrying out the instrument flight itself from preflight, takeoff and departure, en route, through to the approach and landing phases.