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November 2020

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Aremi MacDonald

Wind tunnel simulations on aviation from the Wright Flyer to the airliner

The history of airplanes and aviation date back more than 100 years. Taking flight in an aircraft from its earliest forms to present day requires a lot of aerodynamic studies. From one of the first powered airplanes to today’s commercial airliners, here’s a look at the aerodynamics of aviation using Ingrid Cloud’s Virtual Wind Tunnel.

1. The Wright Flyer & the early beginnings of wind analysis

When we think of the first airplane ever invented, we think of the Wright brothers. That’s because they’re widely recognised for having executed the most sustained and controlled flight in their very own aircraft invention, the Wright Flyer.

The 1903 Wright Flyer was considered a success thanks to the brothers’ contributions to aeronautics, engineering and aerodynamic analysis.

It was the beginning of a pioneering era. To test the aircraft’s aerodynamic soundness, the brothers made their own wind tunnel using a box and a fan that blew a steady stream of air into the testing environment. The wind tunnel was used for various wind studies, for example, to analyse the aerodynamics of multiple wing designs. Testing allowed the brothers to calculate the optimal size and shape of the wings and other performance measures that would propel them into flight (literally!).

The brothers soon went on to develop many more improved aircraft models in the following years. These self-made engineers were at the precipice of mechanical flight and would set the tone for aircraft engineering and innovation from that point on.

The aerodynamics of the 1903 Wright Flyer were in no means ideal. Although the aircraft could only sustain flight for approximately 30 minutes, the innovation of its mechanical systems, glider-like shape of the wings, and both wind tunnel and flight testing were focal contributors to aeronautical engineering and the Flyer’s success.

 

The brothers patented a wing warping system that helped the aircraft gain lift and maintain lateral control during flight by creating a lift differential. Pulleys and cables enabled the wings to warp and twist in opposite directions during flight, while the curved edges of the wings and apparatus at the front of the plane, known as the elevator, enabled an increase (or decrease) in lift drag depending on the angle of the plane.

2. The Biplane, sturdy yet (aerodynamically) inefficient

Not long after the 1903 Flyer came the biplane- another innovation by the Wright brothers. This design stuck around for quite some time and they were often used as military aircrafts.

The biplane’s two-wing configuration with subsequent wings stacked below it offered a solid structure, however, it produced substantial drag. Although its sturdy build was reliable, the stacked wings created forces of both high and low air pressure which aerodynamically conflicted with one another.

 

helicopter (1)

The biplane's aerodynamic interference between the top and bottom wings meant that it could not obtain twice the lift of its similarly sized successor: the monoplane.

 

Later biplane designs moved the upper wing slightly forward, creating a wing stagger between the top and bottom to alleviate the issue, making it more aerodynamically efficient. Overall, these aircrafts offered low wing loading and were relatively slow. Improved innovation quickly made the biplane obsolete as the invention of the monoplane proved to be more efficient and practical on many levels.

monoplane-1

The monoplane is a single main-wing aircraft with a similar wing profile to the biplane. As both were relative in size, the monoplane offers a simple build with a better aerodynamic design when it comes to increased speed, reduced drag and air foil efficiency. This means that as air moves over the top of the air foil (a.k.a. the cross-sectional shape of the wing), it speeds up, creating an area of low pressure above the wing and lift occurs.

 

3. The commercial airliner, CFD and aerodynamic analysis produce modern solutions to solve old problems

Through and through, the commercial airliner is one of the most popular modern aircraft designs known by the masses. Used for domestic and long-haul travel, these aircrafts are massive and consume large amounts of resources such as fuel to sustain flight. That’s mainly why airline manufacturers are highly motivated to consistently finding new ways to improve its efficiency using aerodynamic analysis.

When it comes to the aerospace industry, wind analysis, Computational Fluid Dynamics and virtual simulations are highly instrumental to the design of an aircraft.

 

helicopter

The slight curvature of the top wings and flat plane on the bottom allows the air to flow over the wing faster. Using curvature as well as utilising the most efficient materials on the market are some of the ways airliners are able to cut costs, reduce drag, increase speed and improve countless other flight variables.

 

The innovation of the aircraft has had a long journey and continues to see design improvements and efficiencies which couldn’t have been made possible without undergoing a significant amount of wind analysis, even dating back more than a century! But the days of design optimisation through physical testing are changing as new solutions on the marketing offer a highly efficient approach. To consider the success of an airplane, a lot of it comes down to the aerodynamics of its design.

Nowadays, innovative technology such as Computational Fluid Dynamic (CFD) simulations produce a formal solution that is not only fast, but also offers reliable data to enhance the process.

Now we’re not saying virtual wind tunnels will completely replace physical testing on all frontiers of aircraft innovation, but a symbiotic balance between the two is the answer (and has been in practise for quite some time now in the industry). What we ARE saying is that Computational Fluid Dynamics is a highly efficient and performative way to help make those data-driven design decisions!

How do you consider aerodynamic studies for your design? Whether it’s an aircraft, a building or anything else for that matter, Ingrid Cloud’s Virtual Wind Tunnel enables engineers and designers to conduct reliable and data-driven wind studies using Computational Fluid Dynamic (CFD) simulations. Upload virtually any 3D model to understand and assess the aerodynamic effects of fluid flow interaction with your design.

Ingrid Cloud's simulation methods are scientifically validated and have been thoroughly compared to physical wind tunnel measurements in various benchmark cases, consistently delivering highly accurate and reliable results. Sign up or log in to your account to start a simulation!

If you have any questions about our Computational Fluid Dynamic simulation technology and how it works towards design optimisation feel free to get in touch!