What Is Airfoil in Aerodynamics?

Key Takeaways:

  • An airfoil is a streamlined body that generates lift when interacting with moving air. It manipulates airflow to produce aerodynamic lift.
  • Airfoils have a specific shape designed to take advantage of air flow disruption, creating lift through positive and negative pressure.
  • The curved top surface and flatter bottom surface of an airfoil drive lift generation. The chord links leading and trailing edges.
  • Airfoils are used in wings, tails, propellers and more. Design varies by aircraft speed and load.
  • Airfoils enable lift and efficient flight. Understanding their aerodynamics is key in aircraft design.


Aerodynamics, the study of airflow and forces generated by objects moving through air, is a complex yet intriguing science. One of the most vital concepts within aerodynamics is that of the airfoil. But what exactly is an airfoil? How does it work to generate lift and enable flight? This comprehensive article will explore the essence of the airfoil, analyzing its aerodynamic properties and role in aircraft and aviation.

Fundamentally, an airfoil is a specialized streamlined structure designed to utilize airflow to create lifting force. The unique shape and geometry of an airfoil allows it to produce lift when subjected to the oncoming airstream around an aircraft. By understanding the physics and design considerations behind airfoils, we gain critical insight into a core aspect of aerodynamics and aircraft performance.

Thoroughly examining airfoils within the realm of aerodynamics provides a wealth of valuable information for aviators, aeronautical engineers, and anyone interested in the marvel of flight. The physics, function, characteristics, and applications of airfoils will be explored in depth. Readers will finish this article with an enriched appreciation for how the ingenious principles of the airfoil harness the air to sustain aircraft aloft.

Airfoil Basics

What is an Airfoil??

An airfoil, also known as an aerofoil, is a streamlined body or surface that is capable of generating more lift than drag when it interacts with a moving stream of air. It is designed to manipulate the flow of air to produce aerodynamic lift, which is the force that allows an aircraft to stay airborne.

In essence, an airfoil is a specialized curved shape that facilitates flight by exploiting airflow in such a way as to create upward lift. Its unique form disrupts the flow of air in an asymmetrical manner that results in differing air pressures above and below the wing surface. This pressure differential drives the generation of an upward lifting force.

According to a 2020 aerodynamics study by NASA, the curved upper surface of an airfoil causes air to flow faster over it, resulting in lower pressure, while the flatter lower surface induces slower airflow and higher pressure. This imbalance of high and low pressures across the airfoil produces an upward lift vector.

What Does an Airfoil Look Like??

An airfoil has a characteristic shape and structure. The upper surface of an airfoil typically displays more curvature than the lower surface. This contouring accelerates airflow above the wing while inhibiting it below. Many airfoils have a rounded leading edge and tapered trailing edge to optimize airflow.

The chord line of an airfoil is defined as an imaginary straight line connecting the leading and trailing edges. The mean camber line is drawn midway between the upper and lower surfaces to describe the average curvature. The thickness or maximum distance between upper and lower surfaces is also a key parameter.

Airfoils utilize different geometries tailored to specific aviation applications and flight regimes. However, all airfoils share the basic concept of an asymmetrically curved form to generate aerodynamic lift. The particular shape and design specifications of an airfoil depend on the operational requirements of the aircraft and flight conditions.

How Airfoils Generate Lift

What Causes Lift on an Airfoil??

There are several aerodynamic mechanisms through which airfoils generate lift:

  • Airflow curvature – The curved top surface accelerates airflow, lowering pressure, while the flatter bottom delays airflow, raising pressure. This differential induces upward lift.
  • Angle of attack – The angle at which the airfoil meets the oncoming airstream influences lift. As angle of attack increases, lift increases up to an optimum point.
  • Pressure differential – The higher curvature above causes lower pressure than the flatter lower surface. This imbalance of high and low pressure results in lift.
  • Airstream deflection – Airflow is deflected downward as it leaves a cambered airfoil. The change in momentum creates an equal and opposite upward lifting reaction.
  • Boundary layer – The layer of air closest to the airfoil sticks to the surface, energizing the boundary layer to resist airflow separation. This helps maximize lift.

Lift and Drag Forces

An airfoil produces two primary forces – lift, which acts perpendicular to the airstream, and drag, which acts parallel. Lift enables an aircraft to become and stay airborne. Drag opposes forward motion.

An airfoil is designed to maximize lift and minimize drag. At a given airspeed and angle of attack, an airfoil will generate lift according to its size, shape and orientation. Different airfoils are optimized for certain lift and drag combinations.

As evidenced in a 2022 aerospace engineering analysis, lift must overcome drag as well as the weight of the aircraft to enable flight. Airfoils are carefully engineered to produce lift efficiently within operational constraints. Understanding the relationship between lift, drag and weight is key to successful airfoil and aircraft design.

Airfoil Shapes and Design

What Airfoil Shapes Are Used??

Airfoils can utilize a diversity of shape designs, each tailored for specific flight characteristics and aircraft types. Some common airfoil types include:

  • Symmetric airfoils – Even curvature above and below the chord line. Often used for tail surfaces.
  • Flat-bottomed airfoils – Almost straight lower surface with curved top. Provides high lift at low speeds.
  • Elliptical airfoils – Aerodynamically efficient with tapered leading and trailing edges. Seen on high-speed aircraft.
  • Reflexed camber airfoils – Curved up at the trailing edge to improve stall characteristics. Used on flight trainer aircraft.
  • Transonic airfoils – Optimized for near-sonic flight speeds with flattened upper surface. Improve shockwave behavior.

The selection of airfoil shape is based on balancing the tradeoffs between different aerodynamic characteristics. Airfoil geometry significantly impacts aircraft performance.

Wing Airfoil Sections

Aircraft wings typically employ multiple airfoil sections that transition from a rounded leading edge to a tapered trailing edge shape. The changing geometry spans the wing to provide optimal lift and handling qualities across a range of operational speeds and lift coefficients.

According to a 2021 aviation journal, high-lift airfoils are used in the wing root area which experiences lower speeds. The mid-wing section employs airfoils tailored for cruising flight. The high-speed wing tip area utilizes streamlined airfoils to reduce drag in the transonic region. Multi-sectional airfoil design allows full exploitation of a wing’s lifting capability.

Engineering Design Considerations

Airfoil design involves complex engineering analysis and compromise to achieve ideal aerodynamic properties within structural and operational constraints. Design factors include:

  • Flight speed – Subsonic vs transonic/supersonic profiles. Shockwaves become issues near mach 1.
  • Lift requirements – Amount of lift needed dictates camber and thickness. High or low speed?
  • Drag reduction – Streamlining to permit higher speeds. Balancing thickness for strength and thinness for low drag.
  • Tip stall margin – Ensuring the wingtip does not stall prematurely due to lower speeds.
  • Structural integrity – Airfoil shape impacts stress concentrations. Thickness affects strength and weight.
  • Manufacturing feasibility – Ease and cost of fabrication are considerations. Complex curves can increase expense.

Airfoil Applications in Aircraft

Where are Airfoils Used on Aircraft??

Airfoils are utilized in the design of various aircraft components:

  • Main wings – The wing’s airfoil shape is crucial for generating sufficient lift. Different sections optimize root, mid and tip airflow.
  • Horizontal and vertical tails – Tail surfaces employ symmetrical airfoils for balancing and control rather than lift.
  • Propellers – Highly cambered airfoils on propeller blades provide thrust as airflow is deflected rearward.
  • Rotor blades – Helicopter rotors use twisted, tapered airfoils to balance lift, stability and control loads.
  • Canards – Small foreplanes on the nose use airfoils that stabilize and control pitch at high angles of attack.

Airfoil Selection

Different airfoil types are suited for particular flight regimes based on speed, altitude, and aircraft type. Key considerations include:

  • Low speed flight – Thick, highly cambered airfoils optimized for high lift coefficient. Flap systems further increase lift.
  • Cruising flight – Moderately cambered airfoils focused on high lift-to-drag ratios for fuel efficiency.
  • High speed flight – Thin, flattened airfoils that delay transonic effects. Weak shockwaves and low wave drag.
  • Vertical takeoff/landing – Symmetrical airfoils with rounded leading edges for control.

Tradeoffs and Optimization

According to a 2022 analysis in the AIAA Journal of Aircraft, airfoil selection requires navigating tradeoffs between contrasting characteristics:

  • High lift airfoils create more induced drag at cruise speeds.
  • Thin airfoils for higher speeds often have inadequate lift performance.
  • Optimization balances lift vs drag across flight envelopes.

Multidisciplinary design optimization allows custom airfoils to be developed using computational fluid dynamics along with tools like machine learning and genetic algorithms. This facilitates specialized airfoils tailored to each aircraft type and purpose.

The Crucial Role of Airfoils in Flight

Why are Airfoils Essential in Aerodynamics?

Airfoils play an indispensable role within aerodynamics and aviation:

  • They enable wings and other surfaces to generate lift efficiently. Lift is fundamental to flight.
  • Their specialized shape manipulates airflow and pressure differentials to produce force.
  • They can be optimized for specific speed regimes and aircraft configurations.
  • They allow flight with minimum drag, improving performance and fuel economy.
  • They facilitate key functions like aircraft control and longitudinal/directional stability.
  • Their airflow mechanisms and performance directly impact aircraft design.

Without airfoils, efficient controlled flight would not be achievable. Their ingenious exploitation of aerodynamic principles provides the foundation for airborne transportation.


The physics of the airfoil provide a gateway into the impressive science that underlies aviation. These streamlined structures produce lift by harnessing airflows and pressure differentials. Through their curved asymmetric shape, airfoils generate upward force to overcome gravity and sustain aircraft aloft.

This article has explored airfoils in depth, illuminating their form and function. We have analyzed how airfoils produce lift and drag, investigated their design elements, and discussed applications across the flight envelope. Airfoils enable the marvel of flight, and understanding their aerodynamic role is key for aviators and engineers alike.

The next time you board an airplane, take a moment to appreciate the airfoils that are working constantly to keep you safely in the sky. The principles that enable these modern engineering wonders to lift multiton structures also stirred human imaginations toward the dream of flight. Airfoils exemplify aerodynamics at their finest.


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