The conventional aerofoil revisited
In Chapter 5 we saw how the flow characteristics over a conventional aerofoil changed with increasing free-stream Mach number from a shock-free low speed flow (Fig. 5.18(a)) through the developing shock wave system at transonic speeds (Fig. 5.18(b)) until the fully developed shock system is obtained at higher Mach numbers (Fig. 5.18(c)). In transonic aircraft we are particularly concerned with the intermediate type of flow shown in Fig. 5.18(b) in which the oncoming flow is still subsonic.
First let us take another look at the pressure distribution on a conventional aerofoil section (this is shown again in Fig. 9.4) and how this relates to the flow is shown in Fig. 5.18(b). We see at once that there are two potential problems. First there is a very high suction peak which occurs locally near the leading edge of the aerofoil. This means very high velocities in this region, and consequently high Mach numbers. The second problem occurs because of the very high adverse pressure gradient on the downstream side of this suction peak. This is liable to coalesce into a relatively strong shock wave (the shock wave which terminates the supersonic patch in Fig. 5.18(b)) and this may also induce boundary layer separation, with all the problems that entails!
Fig. 9.4 Low speed aerofoil pressure distribution
Mach number below 1.0 over surface
Note leading edge suction peak and adverse pressure gradient on top surface
The increase in the surface velocity over the aerofoil section is caused by two factors – the thickness of the section and its angle of attack. Thus one way in which the local Mach number over the top can be limited is to use a thin section. This has certain aerodynamic penalties associated with it, however, as we have already seen in Chapter 2. Firstly the range of angle of attack over which the wing will operate without stalling will be reduced, and secondly it is obvious that the problems of fitting in a satisfactory wing structure get more and more severe as the section thickness is reduced (Chapter 14).
So far we have attacked the problem of developing a wing section suitable for transonic flight simply by using as thin a section as we can in order to limit the velocity increase due to thickness. However, as we get near to the speed of sound, the achievable wing loading is limited unless the flow becomes locally supersonic. We therefore have to design supercritical aerofoils in which this supersonic flow is adequately catered for.