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Airfoil Nomenclature

1. Figure below shows a typical airfoil.

(a) Mean camber line is the locus of points halfway between the upper and
lower surfaces as measured perpendicular to the mean camber line itself.
(b) The most forward and rearward points of the mean camber line are the
leading and trailing edges respectively.
(c) The straight line connecting the leading to the trailing edge is the chord
line of the airfoil.
(d) The precise distance from the leading to the trailing edge measured along
the chord line, is designated chord, c.
(e) The camber is the maximum distance between the mean camber line and
the chord line, measured perpendicular to the chord line.
(f) The thickness is the distance between the upper and lower surfaces, also
measured perpendicular to the chord line.
(g) The shape of the airfoil at the leading edge is usually circular, with a
leading edge radius of approximately 0.02 c.
(h) The shapes of all standard NACA airfoils are generated by specifying the
shape of the mean camber line and then wrapping a specified symmetrical
thickness distribution around the mean camber line.
(i) An airfoil with no camber, that is, with the camber line and chord line
coincident is called a symmetric airfoil.

2. NACA Airfoils

(a) The first family consisted four digit series e.g., NACA 2412.
(i) The first digit represents the maximum camber in hundredths of
(ii) The second digit denotes the location of maximum camber along
the chord from the leading edge in tenths of chord.
(iii) The last two digits give the maximum thickness in hundredths of
For example, for NACA 2412, maximum camber is 0.02 c located at 0.4 c from
the leading edge and maximum thickness is 0.12 c. It is common practice to state
these numbers in percent of chord i.e., 2 percent camber at 40 percent chord with
12 percent thickness.
(b) The second family was the five digit series e.g., NACA 23012 airfoil.
(i) Here the first digit when multiplied by 3/2 gives the design lift
coefficient in tenths.
Design lift coefficient is the theoretical lift coefficient for the
airfoil when the angle of attack is such that the slope of the mean camber
line at the leading edge is parallel to the free stream velocity.

(ii) The next two digits when divided by 2 gives the location of
maximum camber along the chord from the leading edge in
hundredths of chord.
(iii) Final two digits give the maximum thickness in hundredths of
For example, NACA 23012, design lift coefficient is 0.3, the location of
maximum camber is at 0.15 c and the airfoil has 12 percent maximum thickness.

(c) The third family was the six digit series laminar airfoils developed during
the World War II e.g., NACA 65-218.
(i) The first digit here identifies the series.
(ii) The second digit gives the location of minimum pressure in tenths
of chord from the leading edge (for the basic symmetric thickness
distribution at zero lift)
(iii) The third digit is the design lift coefficient in tenths.
(iv) The last two digits give the maximum thickness in hundredths of
For example, NACA 65-218, 6 is the series designation, the minimum pressure
occurs at 0.5 c for the basic symmetric thickness distribution at zero lift, the
design lift coefficient is 0.2 and the airfoil is 18 percent thick.

Airfoil Characteristics

3. The typical variation of lift coefficient with angle of attack for an airfoil is as
shown in figure below.

(a) At low-to-moderate angles of attack, cl varies linearly with alpha.

(b) The slope of this straight line is denoted by ao and is called lift slope.
(c) In this linear region, the flow moves smoothly over the airfoil and is
attached over most of the surface.
(d) However as the alpha becomes large, the flow tends to separate from the
top surface of the airfoil, creating a large wake of relatively “dead” air
behind the airfoil.
(e) In this separated region, the flow is recirculating, and part of the flow is
actually moving in a direction opposite to the free stream-so called reverse
flow. This separated flow is due to viscous effects.
(f) The consequence of this separated flow at high alpha is a precipitous
decrease in lift and a large increase in drag; under such conditions the
airfoil is said to be stalled.
(g) The maximum value of cl (cl max) which occurs just prior to the stall
determines the stalling speed of an airplane. The higher is the cl max, the
lower is the stalling speed.
(h) Thus cl increases linearly with alpha until flow separation begins to have
an effect. Then the curve becomes non linear, cl reaches a maximum
value, and finally the airfoil stalls.
(i) At the other extreme of the curve, the loft at alpha = 0 is finite; indeed the
lift goes to zero only when the airfoil is pitched to some negative angle of
(j) The value of alpha when lift equals zero is called the zero lift angle of
attack and is denoted by αL=0.
(k) For a symmetric airfoil, αL=0 equals zero whereas for all airfoils with
positive camber (camber above chord line), αL=0 is a negative value,
usually of the order of –2 or 3 deg.

4. The inviscid flow airfoil theory allows us to predict the lift slope a0 and αL=0 for a
given airfoil. It does not allow us to calculate cl max, which is a difficult viscous flow

5. The moment coefficient can be calculated at any convenient point, but generally
taken about the quarter-chord point. In general, moments on an airfoil are a function of
alpha. However there is one point on the airfoil about which the moment is independent
of angle of attack; such a point is defined as the aerodynamic center.

Vortex Sheet

6. A vortex sheet can be used to synthesize the inviscid incompressible flow over an
airfoil. If the distance along the sheet is given by s and the strength of the sheet per unit
length is γ(s), then the velocity potential induced at point (x,y) by a vortex sheet that
extends from point a to point b is derived as:
(a) Strength of vortex sheet per unit length along s = γ.
(b) Let this small section of vortex sheet ds have strength γ ds.
(c) This small section induces an infinitesimally small velocity dV at point P
given by
 ds
dV  
2 r
(d) In terms of velocity potential (so that incremental velocities can be added
vectorally), the equation becomes
 ds
d   
(e) The velocity potential at P due to the entire vortex sheet from a to b is
2 a
 ( x, z )    ds

7. The circulation associated with this vortex sheet is

    ( s )ds

8. For a vortex sheet, there is a discontinuous change in the tangential component of

velocity across the sheet (similar to source sheet where discontinuity is in normal
component), i.e., 180 deg change, whereas the normal component of velocity is preserved
across the sheet. If u1 and u2 be the velocity components tangential to the vortex sheet
immediately above and below the sheet respectively, the change in tangential velocity
across the vortex sheet is related to the strength of the sheet as
γ ds = (u1-u2)ds
(or) γ = u1-u2.
Thus the local jump in tangential velocity across the vortex sheet is equal to the local
sheet strength.

9. The concept of a vortex sheet is instrumental in the analysis of the low-speed

characteristics of an airfoil.
(a) Consider an inviscid, incompressible flow over an airfoil of arbitrary
shape and thickness placed in the free stream of velocity v infinity.
(b) Replace the airfoil surface with a vortex sheet of variable strength γ(s).
(c) Calculate the variation of γ as a function of s such that the induced field
velocity from the vortex sheet when added to the unmiform velocity of
magnitude v infinity will make the vortex sheet (hence the airfoil surface)
a streamline of the flow.
(d) In turn, the circulation around the airfoil will be given by
    ( s )ds

(e) Finally the resulting lift is given by the Kutta-Joukowski theorem as

L'   V 
(f) In case of a very thin airfoil, the top and bottom surface almost coincide
when vortex sheet is placed giving rise to the method of approximating a
thin airfoil by replacing it with a single vortex sheet distributed over the
camber line.
10. Kutta Condition. The Kutta condition is an observation that for a lifting
airfoil of given shape at a given angle of attack, nature adopts that particular value of
circulation around the airfoil which results in the flow leaving smoothly at the trailing
edge. The statement can be summarized as:
(a) For a given airfoil at a given angle of attack, the value of Γ around the
airfoil is such that the flow leaves the trailing edge smoothly.
(b) If the trailing edge angle is finite, then the trailing edge is a stagnation
(c) If the trailing edge is cusped, then the velocities leaving the top and
bottom surfaces at the trailing edge are finite and equal in magnitude and
(d) At trailing edge, γ(TE) =γ(a) = V1-V2
(i) For cusped trailing edge, V1=V2<>0 and hence γ(TE) = 0.
(ii) For finite angle trailing edge, V1=V2=0 and hence γ(TE) = 0.

(e) Nature enforces Kutta condition by means of friction. That is why the
viscous boundary layer remains attached to the surface all the way to the
trailing edge. If there were no boundary layer (no friction), there would be
no physical mechanism in the real world to achieve Kutta condition.

Kelvin’s Circulation Theorem and the Starting Vortex

11. The time rate of change of circulation around a closed curve consisting of the
same fluid elements is zero, i.e.,
This equation along with its supporting discussion is called Kelvin’s circulation theorem.
An interesting consequence of Kelvin’s circulation theorem is proof that a stream surface
which is a vortex sheet at some instant in time remains a vortex sheet for all times.
Kelvin’s theorem helps to explain generation of circulation around an airfoil as follows: -

(a) As the flow over an airfoil is started, the large velocity gradients at the
sharp trailing edge result in the formation of a region of intense vorticity
which rolls up downstream of the trailing edge, forming the starting
(b) This starting vortex has associated with it a counter-clockwise circulation.
Therefore, as an equal-and-opposite reaction, a clockwise circulation
around the airfoil is generated.
(c) As the starting process continues, vorticity from the trailing edge is
constantly fed into the starting vortex making it stronger with a
consequent larger counter clockwise circulation. In turn, the clockwise
circulation around the airfoil becomes stronger, making the flow at the
trailing edge more closely approach the Kutta condition thus weakening
the vorticity shed from the trailing edge.
(d) Finally the starting vortex, builds up to just the right strength such that the
equal-and-opposite clockwise circulation around the airfoil leads to
smooth flow from the trailing edge (the Kutta condition is exactly
(e) When this happens, the vorticity shed from the trailing edge becomes zero,
the starting vortex no longer grows in strength, and a steady circulation
exists around the airfoil.

12. Consider an airfoil in fluid at rest as shown in figure (a).

(a) Because V = 0, Γ1 = 0.
(b) Once flow is in motion over the airfoil as shown in figure (b),
(i) Initially, flow will tend to curl around the trailing edge causing
velocity to tend towards infinity. This causes velocity gradients
causing high vorticity at the trailing edge. A starting vortex is

(ii) After flow reaches steady state where flow leaves trailing edge
smoothly (Kutta condition), the starting vortex moves downstream with
the flow.
(c) If curve C2 enclosed the airfoil and starting vortex, the circulation around
curve C1 and C2 will be the same and Γ1 = Γ2 = 0.
(d) Subdividing curve C2 into two loops by making a cut at b d forming the
curves c3 and c4 enclosing the airfoil and starting vortex respectively, the
circulation around C3 is Γ3 and C4 is Γ4. Γ3 is in the counter clockwise
direction i.e., a negative value.
(e) The sum of the circulations around C3 and C4 is simply equal to the
circulation around C2:
Γ3 + Γ4 = Γ2
Since Γ2 = 0, Γ4 = -Γ3
That is, circulation around the airfoil is equal and opposite to the
circulation around the starting vortex.


1. The basic equations necessary for the calculation of airfoil lifts and moments are
established with an application to symmetric airfoils.
(a) We first calculate the variation of γ(s) such that the camberline becomes a
streamline of the flow and such that Kutta condition is satisfied at the
trailing edge i.e., γ(TE) = 0.
(b) Once we have found the particular γ(s) that satisfies these conditions, then
the total circulation Γ around the airfoil is found by integrating γ(s) from
the leading edge to the trailing edge.
(c) In turn, the lift is calculated from Γ via the Kutta-Joukowski theorem.

2. Consider a vortex sheet placed on the camberline of an airfoil. The freestream

velocity Vinf, and the airfoil is at the angle of attack, α. The x-axis is oriented along the
chord line, and the z-axis is perpendicular to the chord. The distance measured along the
camberline is denoted by s. The shape of the camberline is given by z = z(x). The chord
length is c.

3. If the airfoil is thin, the camberline is close to the chordline. So let us place the
vortex sheet on the chord line. Here γ = γ(x) is calculated to satisfy this condition as well
as the Kutta condition γ(c) = 0. That is, the strength of the vortex sheet on the chord line
is determined such that the camber line (not the chord line) is a streamline.

4. For the camberline to be a streamline, the component of velocity normal to the

camber line must be zero at all points along the camber line. The velocity at any point in
the flow is the sum of the uniform free stream velocity and the velocity induced by the
vortex sheet.
(a) Let w’ be the component of velocity normal to the camber line induced by
the vortex sheet w’ = w’(s).
(b) Let Vinf,n be the component of free stream velocity normal to the camber
(c) Thus for the camber line to be a stream line
V , n  w '( s)  0 __________________________________(1.1)
at every point along the camber line.
(d) Consider the figure below:

At any point P on the camberline where the slope of the camber line is dz/dx, the
geometry of the figure yields
  dz  
V , n  V sin    tan 1    ____________________(1.2)
  dx  
(e) For a thin airfoil at small angle of attack both α and arctan (-dz/dx) are
small values. Using sin θ = θ = tan θ for small θ, above equation reduces
 dz 
V , n  V sin     _____________________________(1.3)
 dx 
(f) Let us develop an expression for w(s).
(i) w’(s) is the component of velocity normal to the camber line
induced by the vortex sheet.
(ii) Let w(x) denote the components of velocity normal to the chord
line induced by the vortex sheet.
(iii) If the airfoil is thin, then
w'(s)=w(x) (approx)
(iv) To calculate the value of w(x) at location x, consider an elemental
vortex of strength γ dξ located at a distance ξ from the origin along
the chord line. The strength of the vortex sheet γ varies with the
distance along the chord i.e., γ = γ(ξ).
(v) The velocity dw at point x induced by the elemental vortex at point
ξ is given by
 ( )d 
dw   ______________________________(1.4)
2  x   
(vi) The velocity w(x) induced at point x by all the elemental vortices
along the chord line is obtained by integrating the above equation
from leading edge (ξ = 0) to the trailing edge (ξ = c).
 ( )d 
w( x )    ___________________________(1.5)
2  x   
(vii) Thus by eqn (4),
 ( )d 
w( x )  w '( s)    _____________________(1.6)
2  x   
(g) Equation (1) is the boundary condition necessary for the camber line to be
a stream line. Thus substituting (1.3) and (1.6) in (1.1) gives
 dz 
 ( )d 
V        0;
 dx  0 2  x   
1  ( )d
 dz 
2 0  x   
 V    
 dx 
This is the fundamental equation of thin airfoil theory and is a statement
that camber line is a stream line of the flow.

5. Now we have to solve equation (1.7) for γ(ξ) subject to the Kutta condition
γ(c) = 0
(a) In this case, we consider a symmetric airfoil which has no camber; the
camber line and chord line are coincident.
(b) Hence dz/dx = 0 and equation (1.7) becomes
1  ( )d

2 0  x   
 V ________________________(1.8)

Equation (1.7) is an exact expression for the inviscid, incompressible flow

over a flat plate at a small angle of attack.
(c) To integrate this let us transform ξ into θ using the transformation
   1  cos   _____________________________(1.9)
(i) Since x is a fixed point, θ = θo such that
x   1  cos  o  ______________________(1.10)
(ii) From above equation, d   sin  d .______(1.11)
(iii) Substituting equations (1.10) and (1.11) in (1.8) gives

1  ( ) sin  d

2 0  cos   cos  0 
 V _________(1.12)

(iv) The solution is given by

1  cos 
 ( )  2V ___________________(1.13)
sin 
(d) From equation (13), it can be noted that at the trailing edge, where θ = π,
 ( )  2V .
Applying L’Hospital rule,
 sin 
 ( )  2V 0
cos 
thus satisfying Kutta condition.

6. We are now in a position to calculate the lift coefficient by calculating the total
circulation. The total circulation around the airfoil is given by
    ( )d  __________________________________(1.14)

which is transformed as

    ( ) sin  d ____________________________(1.15)
by substituting equations (1.10) and (1.11).
(a) Now substituting equations (1.13) in (1.15) gives

   c   1  cos   d   cV _____________(1.16)

(b) Substituting equation (1.16) into the Kutta-Joukowski theorem, the lift per
unit span is
L '  V    c V2 _____________________(1.17)
(d) The lift coefficient is
cl  _________________________________(1.18)
q s
where s = c(1).
(e) Substituting equation (1.17) in (1.18) gives
 c  V2
cl   2 _________________________________(1.19)
q s
and lift slope is given as
 2 __________________________________________(1.20)
(f) Thus equations (1.19) and (1.20) states that lift coefficient is linearly
proportional to angle of attack and the lift slope is 2π/ radians or 0.11/deg.
(g) This is supported by experimental results.

7. The moment about the leading edge can be calculated as follows: -

(a) Consider the elemental vortex of strength γ(ξ)dξ located at a distance ξ
from the leading edge. The circulation associated with this elemental
vortex is dΓ = γ(ξ)dξ. The increment of lift dL contributed by the
elemental vortex is
dL   V d 
(b) This incremental lift creates a moment about leading edge dM = -ξ dL.
The total moment is given by (for the entire vortex sheet)
c c
M LE     dL   V   ( ) d ______________________(1.21)
0 0

(c) Transforming equation (1.21) into θ via equations (1.10) and (1.11) and
M LE  q c 2 / 2 _________________________________(1.22)
(d) The moment coefficient is
M LE 
cm ,le   ______________________________(1.23)
q sc 2
(e) However from equation (1.19), cl = 2πα and hence πα = cl/2. Substituting
in above equation for cm,le gives
cm.le   l _____________________________________(1.24)
(f) The moment coefficient about the quarter-chord point is given by the
cm ,c / 4  cm ,le  cl / 4 ______________________________(1.25)
(g) Combining equations (1.24) and (1.25) gives cm,c/4 = 0.
Thus the above equation demonstrates the theoretical result that the centre of
pressure is at the quarter-chord point for a symmetrical airfoil.

8. By definition, the point on an airfoil where moments are independent of angle of

attack is called the aerodynamic center. Thus from the above result, it is found that
moment about the quarter chord is zero for all values of α. Hence for a symmetric airfoil,
we have the theoretical result that the quarter chord point is both the centre of pressure
and the aerodynamic centre.