Thrust and Drag - Aerodynamics of Flight

An aircraft in flight is the center of a continuous battle of forces. Actually, this conflict is not as violent as it sounds, but it is the key to all maneuvers performed in the air. There is nothing mysterious about these forces; they are definite and known. The directions in which they act can be calculated, and the aircraft itself is designed to take advantage of each of them. In all types of flying, flight calculations are based on the magnitude and direction of four forces: weight, lift, drag, and thrust. [Figure 1]

Thrust and Drag, Aerodynamics of Flight
Figure 1. Forces in action during flight

An aircraft in flight is acted upon by four forces:
  1. Gravity or weight—the force that pulls the aircraft toward the earth. Weight is the force of gravity acting downward upon everything that goes into the aircraft, such as the aircraft itself, crew, fuel, and cargo.
  2. Lift—the force that pushes the aircraft upward. Lift acts vertically and counteracts the effects of weight.
  3. Thrust—the force that moves the aircraft forward. Thrust is the forward force produced by the powerplant that overcomes the force of drag.
  4. Drag—the force that exerts a braking action to hold the aircraft back. Drag is a backward deterrent force and is caused by the disruption of the airflow by the wings, fuselage, and protruding objects.

These four forces are in perfect balance only when the aircraft is in straight-and-level unaccelerated flight.

The forces of lift and drag are the direct result of the relationship between the relative wind and the aircraft. The force of lift always acts perpendicular to the relative wind, and the force of drag always acts parallel to and in the same direction as the relative wind. These forces are actually the components that produce a resultant lift force on the wing. [Figure 2]

Thrust and Drag, Aircraft Aerodynamics of Flight
Figure 2. Resultant of lift and drag

Weight has a definite relationship with lift, and thrust with drag. These relationships are quite simple, but very important in understanding the aerodynamics of flying. As stated previously, lift is the upward force on the wing perpendicular to the relative wind. Lift is required to counteract the aircraft’s weight, caused by the force of gravity acting on the mass of the aircraft. This weight force acts downward through a point called the center of gravity (CG). The CG is the point at which all the weight of the aircraft is considered to be concentrated. When the lift force is in equilibrium with the weight force, the aircraft neither gains nor loses altitude. If lift becomes less than weight, the aircraft loses altitude. When the lift is greater than the weight, the aircraft gains altitude.

Wing area is measured in square feet and includes the part blanked out by the fuselage. Wing area is adequately described as the area of the shadow cast by the wing at high noon. Tests show that lift and drag forces acting on a wing are roughly proportional to the wing area. This means that if the wing area is doubled, all other variables remaining the same, the lift and drag created by the wing is doubled. If the area is tripled, lift and drag are tripled.

Drag must be overcome for the aircraft to move, and movement is essential to obtain lift. To overcome drag and move the aircraft forward, another force is essential. This force is thrust. Thrust is derived from jet propulsion or from a propeller and engine combination. Jet propulsion theory is based on Newton’s third law of motion . The turbine engine causes a mass of air to be moved backward at high velocity causing a reaction that moves the aircraft forward.

In a propeller/engine combination, the propeller is actually two or more revolving airfoils mounted on a horizontal shaft. The motion of the blades through the air produces lift similar to the lift on the wing, but acts in a horizontal direction, pulling the aircraft forward.

Before the aircraft begins to move, thrust must be exerted. The aircraft continues to move and gain speed until thrust and drag are equal. In order to maintain a steady speed, thrust and drag must remain equal, just as lift and weight must be equal for steady, horizontal flight. Increasing the lift means that the aircraft moves upward, whereas decreasing the lift so that it is less than the weight causes the aircraft to lose altitude. A similar rule applies to the two forces of thrust and drag. If the revolutions per minute (rpm) of the engine is reduced, the thrust is lessened, and the aircraft slows down. As long as the thrust is less than the drag, the aircraft travels more and more slowly until its speed is insufficient to support it in the air.

Likewise, if the rpm of the engine is increased, thrust becomes greater than drag, and the speed of the aircraft increases. As long as the thrust continues to be greater than the drag, the aircraft continues to accelerate. When drag equals thrust, the aircraft flies at a steady speed.

The relative motion of the air over an object that produces lift also produces drag. Drag is the resistance of the air to objects moving through it. If an aircraft is flying on a level course, the lift force acts vertically to support it while the drag force acts horizontally to hold it back. The total amount of drag on an aircraft is made up of many drag forces, but this site considers three: parasite drag, profile drag, and induced drag.

Parasite drag is made up of a combination of many different drag forces. Any exposed object on an aircraft offers some resistance to the air, and the more objects in the airstream, the more parasite drag. While parasite drag can be reduced by reducing the number of exposed parts to as few as practical and streamlining their shape, skin friction is the type of parasite drag most difficult to reduce. No surface is perfectly smooth. Even machined surfaces have a ragged uneven appearance when inspected under magnification. These ragged surfaces deflect the air near the surface causing resistance to smooth airflow. Skin friction can be reduced by using glossy smooth finishes and eliminating protruding rivet heads, roughness, and other irregularities.

Profile drag may be considered the parasite drag of the airfoil. The various components of parasite drag are all of the same nature as profile drag.

The action of the airfoil that creates lift also causes induced drag. Remember, the pressure above the wing is less than atmospheric pressure, and the pressure below the wing is equal to or greater than atmospheric pressure. Since fluids always move from high pressure toward low pressure, there is a spanwise movement of air from the bottom of the wing outward from the fuselage and upward around the wing tip. This flow of air results in spillage over the wing tip, thereby setting up a whirlpool of air called a “vortex.” [Figure 3]

Thrust and Drag, Aircraft Aerodynamics
Figure 3. Wingtip vortices

The air on the upper surface has a tendency to move in toward the fuselage and off the trailing edge. This air current forms a similar vortex at the inner portion of the trailing edge of the wing. These vortices increase drag because of the turbulence produced, and constitute induced drag.

Just as lift increases with an increase in AOA, induced drag also increases as the AOA becomes greater. This occurs because, as the AOA is increased, the pressure difference between the top and bottom of the wing becomes greater. This causes more violent vortices to be set up, resulting in more turbulence and more induced drag.