One of the greatest threats to fuel efficiency that aircraft face is drag, a backwards, horizontal force that creates resistance against the plane’s movement. Aircraft must overcome drag with forward thrust, and the increased demand for thrust leads to an increase in fuel usage. Drag is one of four aerodynamic forces of flight, but there are various causes and types of drag that aircraft face. This blog will provide an overview of the seven types of drag and how they work.
There are two main categories of drag, those of which are parasite and lift-induced drag. These two categories can be further broken down into seven types of drag, including: three forms of parasite drag, and four forms of lift-induced drag. Parasite drag is resistance that is generated by the aircraft itself, such as its shape or materials used, and it occurs in the form of skin friction, form, or interference drag. Skin friction drag gets its name from rough spots on an aircraft’s exterior, creating a disruption in what should be a perfectly aerodynamic surface. Parts like rivets can lead to skin friction drag, but built up debris like snow or bug debris is a common and avoidable culprit. This is why it is also important to maintain airplane deicing in the winter months as a way of reducing drag and fuel consumption.
Form drag, also known as pressure drag, is generated by an aircraft’s shape and how well its design aerodynamically interacts with airflow. The sleeker the plane design, the less form drag it will face. The final type of parasite drag is interference drag which is generated by components like the fuselage, wing struts, landing gear struts, and more. Design-wise, this can be reduced by implementing retractable landing gear or taking other measures to reduce sharp angles. Together, interference drag and form drag comprise the category of profile drag, that of which refers to the overall shape of the aircraft.
The second main category of drag is lift-induced drag which is a byproduct of lift. This can occur when high-pressure air beneath the wing flows up and over the wing or when a downwash occurs by air vortices rolling off the trailing edge of the wings. In addition to the two main categories of drag, there is an additional category that only aircraft traveling at supersonic speeds experience. Known as wave drag, this occurs when a shockwave travels back past the trailing edge of the wing which is flying at subsonic velocity. The shockwave causes airflow to separate from the trailing edge of the wing, creating wave drag.
While different aircraft technology and designs can reduce drag, it is an inevitable force that all planes must against during flight; however, understanding what causes the vicarious types of drag can help you avoid additional drag-inducing factors. For example, it is wise to choose aircraft designs with smooth skin and a sleek fuselage, in addition to opting out of unnecessary protrusions.
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