Angle of attack

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Platform angle of attack MISB ST 0601.8 - Platform Angle of Attack.png
Platform angle of attack
Angle of attack of an airfoil Airfoil angle of attack.jpg
Angle of attack of an airfoil

In fluid dynamics, angle of attack (AOA, α, or ) is the angle between a reference line on a body (often the chord line of an airfoil) and the vector representing the relative motion between the body and the fluid through which it is moving. [1] Angle of attack is the angle between the body's reference line and the oncoming flow. This article focuses on the most common application, the angle of attack of a wing or airfoil moving through air.


In aerodynamics, angle of attack specifies the angle between the chord line of the wing of a fixed-wing aircraft and the vector representing the relative motion between the aircraft and the atmosphere. Since a wing can have twist, a chord line of the whole wing may not be definable, so an alternate reference line is simply defined. Often, the chord line of the root of the wing is chosen as the reference line. Another choice is to use a horizontal line on the fuselage as the reference line (and also as the longitudinal axis). [2] Some authors [3] [4] do not use an arbitrary chord line but use the zero lift axis where, by definition, zero angle of attack corresponds to zero coefficient of lift.

Some British authors have used the term angle of incidence instead of angle of attack. [5] However, this can lead to confusion with the term riggers' angle of incidence meaning the angle between the chord of an airfoil and some fixed datum in the airplane. [6]

Relation between angle of attack and lift coefficient

Coefficients of drag and lift versus angle of attack. Stall speed corresponds to the angle of attack at the maximum coefficient of lift Coefficients of Drag and Lift vs AOA.jpg
Coefficients of drag and lift versus angle of attack. Stall speed corresponds to the angle of attack at the maximum coefficient of lift
A lift coefficient curve. Lift curve.svg
A lift coefficient curve.

The lift coefficient of a fixed-wing aircraft varies with angle of attack. Increasing angle of attack is associated with increasing lift coefficient up to the maximum lift coefficient, after which lift coefficient decreases. [7]

As the angle of attack of a fixed-wing aircraft increases, separation of the airflow from the upper surface of the wing becomes more pronounced, leading to a reduction in the rate of increase of the lift coefficient. The figure shows a typical curve for a cambered straight wing. Cambered airfoils are curved such that they generate some lift at small negative angles of attack. A symmetrical wing has zero lift at 0 degrees angle of attack. The lift curve is also influenced by the wing shape, including its airfoil section and wing planform. A swept wing has a lower, flatter curve with a higher critical angle.

Critical angle of attack

The critical angle of attack is the angle of attack which produces the maximum lift coefficient. This is also called the "stall angle of attack". Below the critical angle of attack, as the angle of attack decreases, the lift coefficient decreases. Conversely, above the critical angle of attack, as the angle of attack increases, the air begins to flow less smoothly over the upper surface of the airfoil and begins to separate from the upper surface. On most airfoil shapes, as the angle of attack increases, the upper surface separation point of the flow moves from the trailing edge towards the leading edge. At the critical angle of attack, upper surface flow is more separated and the airfoil or wing is producing its maximum lift coefficient. As the angle of attack increases further, the upper surface flow becomes more fully separated and the lift coefficient reduces further. [7]

Above this critical angle of attack, the aircraft is said to be in a stall. A fixed-wing aircraft by definition is stalled at or above the critical angle of attack rather than at or below a particular airspeed. The airspeed at which the aircraft stalls varies with the weight of the aircraft, the load factor, the center of gravity of the aircraft and other factors. However, the aircraft always stalls at the same critical angle of attack. The critical or stalling angle of attack is typically around 15° - 20° for many airfoils.

Some aircraft are equipped with a built-in flight computer that automatically prevents the aircraft from increasing the angle of attack any further when a maximum angle of attack is reached, regardless of pilot input. This is called the 'angle of attack limiter' or 'alpha limiter'. Modern airliners that have fly-by-wire technology avoid the critical angle of attack by means of software in the computer systems that govern the flight control surfaces.

In takeoff and landing operations from short runways (STOL), such as Naval Aircraft Carrier operations and STOL backcountry flying, aircraft may be equipped with the angle of attack or Lift Reserve Indicators. These indicators measure the angle of attack (AOA) or the Potential of Wing Lift (POWL, or Lift Reserve) directly and help the pilot fly close to the stalling point with greater precision. STOL operations require the aircraft to be able to operate close to the critical angle of attack during landings and at the best angle of climb during takeoffs. Angle of attack indicators are used by pilots for maximum performance during these maneuvers since airspeed information is only indirectly related to stall behavior.

Very high alpha

Su-27M / Su-35 at high angle of attack Su-35 (12509727094).jpg
Su-27M / Su-35 at high angle of attack

Some military aircraft are able to achieve controlled flight at very high angles of attack, but at the cost of massive induced drag. This provides the aircraft with great agility. A famous example is Pugachev's Cobra. Although the aircraft experiences high angles of attack throughout the maneuver, the aircraft is not capable of either aerodynamic directional control or maintaining level flight until the maneuver ends. The Cobra is an example of supermaneuvering [8] [9] as the aircraft's wings are well beyond the critical angle of attack for most of the maneuver.

Additional aerodynamic surfaces known as "high-lift devices" including leading edge wing root extensions allow fighter aircraft much greater flyable 'true' alpha, up to over 45°, compared to about 20° for aircraft without these devices. This can be helpful at high altitudes where even slight maneuvering may require high angles of attack due to the low density of air in the upper atmosphere as well as at low speed at low altitude where the margin between level flight AoA and stall AoA is reduced. The high AoA capability of the aircraft provides a buffer for the pilot that makes stalling the airplane (which occurs when critical AoA is exceeded) more difficult. However, military aircraft usually do not obtain such high alpha in combat, as it robs the aircraft of speed very quickly due to induced drag, and, in extreme cases, increased frontal area and parasitic drag. Not only do such maneuvers slow the aircraft down, but they cause significant structural stress at high speed. Modern flight control systems tend to limit a fighter's angle of attack to well below its maximum aerodynamic limit.[ citation needed ]


In sailing, the physical principles involved are the same as for aircraft. [10] A sail's angle of attack is the angle between the sail's chord line and the direction of the relative wind.

See also

Related Research Articles

Lift (force) Force perpendicular to flow of surrounding fluid

A fluid flowing around the surface of an object exerts a force on it. Lift is the component of this force that is perpendicular to the oncoming flow direction. It contrasts with the drag force, which is the component of the force parallel to the flow direction. Lift conventionally acts in an upward direction in order to counter the force of gravity, but it can act in any direction at right angles to the flow.

For fixed-wing aircraft, ground effect is the reduced aerodynamic drag that an aircraft's wings generate when they are close to a fixed surface. Reduced drag when in ground effect during takeoff can cause the aircraft to "float" whilst below the recommended climb speed. The pilot can then fly just above the runway while the aircraft accelerates in ground effect until a safe climb speed is reached.

Stall (fluid dynamics) Abrupt reduction in lift due to flow separation

In fluid dynamics, a stall is a reduction in the lift coefficient generated by a foil as angle of attack increases. This occurs when the critical angle of attack of the foil is exceeded. The critical angle of attack is typically about 15 degrees, but it may vary significantly depending on the fluid, foil, and Reynolds number.

The center of pressure is the point where the total sum of a pressure field acts on a body, causing a force to act through that point. The total force vector acting at the center of pressure is the value of the integrated vectorial pressure field. The resultant force and center of pressure location produce equivalent force and moment on the body as the original pressure field. Pressure fields occur in both static and dynamic fluid mechanics. Specification of the center of pressure, the reference point from which the center of pressure is referenced, and the associated force vector allows the moment generated about any point to be computed by a translation from the reference point to the desired new point. It is common for the center of pressure to be located on the body, but in fluid flows it is possible for the pressure field to exert a moment on the body of such magnitude that the center of pressure is located outside the body.

Leading-edge extension

A leading-edge extension (LEX) is a small extension to an aircraft wing surface, forward of the leading edge. The primary reason for adding an extension is to improve the airflow at high angles of attack and low airspeeds, to improve handling and delay the stall. A dog tooth can also improve airflow and reduce drag at higher speeds.

Aspect ratio (aeronautics)

In aeronautics, the aspect ratio of a wing is the ratio of its span to its mean chord. It is equal to the square of the wingspan divided by the wing area. Thus, a long, narrow wing has a high aspect ratio, whereas a short, wide wing has a low aspect ratio.

Airfoil Cross-sectional shape of a wing, blade of a propeller, rotor, or turbine, or sail

An airfoil or aerofoil is the cross-sectional shape of a wing; blade of a propeller rotor or turbine; or sail as seen in cross-section.

The lift coefficient (CL) is a dimensionless coefficient that relates the lift generated by a lifting body to the fluid density around the body, the fluid velocity and an associated reference area. A lifting body is a foil or a complete foil-bearing body such as a fixed-wing aircraft. CL is a function of the angle of the body to the flow, its Reynolds number and its Mach number. The section lift coefficient cl refers to the dynamic lift characteristics of a two-dimensional foil section, with the reference area replaced by the foil chord.

In aerodynamics, lift-induced drag, induced drag, vortex drag, or sometimes drag due to lift, is an aerodynamic drag force that occurs whenever a moving object redirects the airflow coming at it. This drag force occurs in airplanes due to wings or a lifting body redirecting air to cause lift and also in cars with airfoil wings that redirect air to cause a downforce.

Flight control surfaces Surface that allows a pilot to adjust and control an aircrafts flight attitude

Aircraft flight control surfaces are aerodynamic devices allowing a pilot to adjust and control the aircraft's flight attitude.

Flap (aeronautics)

A flap is a high-lift device used to reduce the stalling speed of an aircraft wing at a given weight. Flaps are usually mounted on the wing trailing edges of a fixed-wing aircraft. Flaps are used to reduce the take-off distance and the landing distance. Flaps also cause an increase in drag so they are retracted when not needed.

Retreating blade stall is a hazardous flight condition in helicopters and other rotary wing aircraft, where the retreating rotor blade has a lower relative blade speed, combined with an increased angle of attack, causing a stall and loss of lift. Retreating blade stall is the primary limiting factor of a helicopter's never exceed speed, VNE.

Leading-edge cuff

A leading-edge cuff is a fixed aerodynamic wing device employed on fixed-wing aircraft to improve the stall and spin characteristics. Cuffs may be either factory-designed or an after-market add-on modification.

Leading-edge slot

A leading-edge slot is a fixed aerodynamic feature of the wing of some aircraft to reduce the stall speed and promote good low-speed handling qualities. A leading-edge slot is a spanwise gap in each wing, allowing air to flow from below the wing to its upper surface. In this manner they allow flight at higher angles of attack and thus reduce the stall speed.

Supercritical airfoil

A supercritical airfoil is an airfoil designed primarily to delay the onset of wave drag in the transonic speed range.

In aeronautics and aeronautical engineering, camber is the asymmetry between the two acting surfaces of an airfoil, with the top surface of a wing commonly being more convex. An airfoil that is not cambered is called a symmetric airfoil. The benefits of cambering were discovered and first utilized by George Cayley in the early 19th century.

Pitching moment

In aerodynamics, the pitching moment on an airfoil is the moment produced by the aerodynamic force on the airfoil if that aerodynamic force is considered to be applied, not at the center of pressure, but at the aerodynamic center of the airfoil. The pitching moment on the wing of an airplane is part of the total moment that must be balanced using the lift on the horizontal stabilizer. More generally, a pitching moment is any moment acting on the pitch axis of a moving body.

Coffin corner (aerodynamics)

Coffin corner is the region of flight where a fast but subsonic fixed-wing aircraft's stall speed is near the critical Mach number, at a given gross weight and G-force loading. In this region of flight, it is very difficult to keep an airplane in stable flight. Because the stall speed is the minimum speed required to maintain level flight, any reduction in speed will cause the airplane to stall and lose altitude. Because the critical Mach number is the maximum speed at which air can travel over the wings without losing lift due to flow separation and shock waves, any increase in speed will cause the airplane to lose lift, or to pitch heavily nose-down, and lose altitude.

Leading-edge slat

Slats are aerodynamic surfaces on the leading edge of the wings of fixed-wing aircraft which, when deployed, allow the wing to operate at a higher angle of attack. A higher coefficient of lift is produced as a result of angle of attack and speed, so by deploying slats an aircraft can fly at slower speeds, or take off and land in shorter distances. They are usually used while landing or performing maneuvers which take the aircraft close to a stall, but are usually retracted in normal flight to minimize drag. They decrease stall speed.

Angle of incidence (aerodynamics)

On fixed-wing aircraft, the angle of incidence is the angle between the chord line of the wing where the wing is mounted to the fuselage, and a reference axis along the fuselage. The angle of incidence is fixed in the design of the aircraft, and with rare exceptions, cannot be varied in flight.


  1. "NASA aeronautics guided tour".
  2. Gracey, William (1958). "Summary of Methods of Measuring Angle of Attack on Aircraft" (PDF). NACA Technical Note. NASA Technical Reports (NACA-TN-4351): 1–30.
  3. John S. Denker, See How It Flies.
  4. Wolfgang Langewiesche, Stick and Rudder: An Explanation of the Art of Flying, McGraw-Hill Professional, first edition (September 1, 1990), ISBN   0-07-036240-8
  5. Wolfgang Langewiesche, Stick and Rudder: An Explanation of the Art of Flying, p. 7
  6. Kermode, A.C. (1972), Mechanics of Flight, Chapter 3 (8th edition), Pitman Publishing Limited, London ISBN   0-273-31623-0
  7. 1 2 "NASA Lift Coefficient".
  8. Timothy Cowan
  9. DTIC
  10. Evans, Robin C. "HOW A SAIL BOAT SAILS INTO THE WIND". Reports on How Things Work. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved 14 January 2012.