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Computer drawing of a symmetric airfoil and an airfoil with camber.
 Higher turning = greater lift.

The amount of lift generated by an object depends on how much the flow is turned, which depends on the shape of the object. In general, the lift is a very complex function of the shape. Aerodynamicists model the shape effect by a lift coefficient which is normally determined through wind tunnel testing. For some simple shapes, we can develop mathematical equations to determine the lift coefficient. The simplest model, the two dimensional Kutta-Joukowski airfoil, is studied by undergraduate students. The FoilSim computer program provides the results of this analysis in a form readily usable by students. A result of the analysis shows that the greater the flow turning, the greater the lift generated by an airfoil.

This slide shows the flow fields for two different airfoils. The airfoil on the left is a symmetric airfoil; the shapes above and below the white centerline are the same. The airfoil on the right is curved near the trailing edge. The yellow lines on each figure show the streamlines of flow from left to right. The left figure shows no net turning of the flow and produces no lift; the right figure shows a large amount of turning and generates a large amount of lift. The front portions of both airfoils are nearly identical. The aft portion of the right airfoil creates the higher turning.

The example shown above explains why the aft portion of wings have hinged sections to control and maneuver an aircraft. Deflecting the aft section down produces a geometry similar to the figure on the right producing more lift. Similarly, if the aft section is deflected up, it creates less lift (or even negative lift). The ability to vary the amount of lift over a portion of the wing gives the pilot the ability to maneuver an aircraft. The following slides show the deflection of the control surfaces and the resulting motion of the aircraft:

Let's investigate the dependence of lift on airfoil shape by using a Java simulator.

Due to IT security concerns, many users are currently experiencing problems running NASA Glenn educational applets. There are security settings that you can adjust that may correct this problem.

You can vary the shape of the foil by using the slider below the view window or by backspacing over the input box, typing in your new value and hitting the Enter key on the keyboard. On the right is a graph of the lift versus camber. Camber is a measure of the amount of airfoil curvature. The red dot shows your conditions. Below the graph is the numerical value of the lift. You can display either the lift value (in English or Metric units) or the lift coefficient by using the choice buttons surrounding the output box. Click on the choice button and select from the drop-menu.

As an experiment, set the camber to 0.0 per cent chord and note the amount of lift. Now increase the camber to 5 per cent. Did the lift increase or decrease? Set the camber to -5 per cent. What is the value of lift? Which way would this airfoil move?

You can download your own copy of the program to run off-line by clicking on this button:

Button to Download a Copy of the Program

You can further investigate the effect of airfoil shape and the other factors affecting lift by using the FoilSim III Java Applet. You can also download your own copy of FoilSim to play with for free.


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  • Button to Display Previous Page Factors that Affect Lift: Button to Display Next Page
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Editor: Tom Benson
NASA Official: Tom Benson
Last Updated: Jun 12 2014

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