Wing Loading: More Important Than You Think

In 2011 I said “We’ll continue soon with more on wing loading…”.

It’s 2015. I think you can see that I get distracted easily and persistently. In any case, the information I’m about to present to you has not and will not change. Use it to help understand why your airplane does what it does when you leave the boring confines of straight and level, or use it to help you design that superplane you’ve always wanted to build. Off we go into the underrated world of wing loading!

Wing loading and power/thrust loading are the two most telling specifications about an airplane. Most pilots go right to horsepower and start swelling with pride when numbers north of 300hp start appearing. The assumption is that a lot of horsepower equates to a lot of performance. This is a huge misconception. The total horsepower of an airplane is irrelevant unless you have another number to compare it with; the total weight. A 200hp plane that weighs 1500lbs is going to have way better acceleration than a 500hp airplane that grosses 8000lbs.

Likewise, wing size and thus the wing loading is critical for many of the aerodynamics qualities of a given airplane. A highly loaded wing doesn’t always equate to high speed. There is a delicate balance of wing loading and all performance parameters that matter to you. Absolute ceiling, stall speed, takeoff distance , landing distance, cruise speed, ride quality and turn radius are all tied to the wing loading of an aircraft. For our purposes, we’re going to ignore the effects of power/thrust loading and focus only on wing loading for the duration of this discussion. By pretending that adequate power is not an issue, we’ll have the ability to truly see the importance of the wing area to weight ratio.

ANGLE OF ATTACK

For any airplane to fly, there needs to be some positive angle between the wing and the relative wind. The higher the wing loading, the greater this angle of attack will be in 1G flight for the same wing at a particular speed (this is where the FAA safety advisory about heavy, clean and slow airplanes generating strong wakes comes from…more alpha = stronger vortex). One can think of wing loading as an energy budget for the wing. If the loading increases, level flight is going to cost more through either higher speed or increased angle of attack. No matter what, you’ve go to pay for weight.

 

HIGH SPEED

Conventional wisdom says that if I want to fly fast, I should have a small wing. This is not completely true; if I wish to fly fast, I need to have low drag. Wing size is related to speed only through skin friction drag, induced drag and in some cases, wave drag. The size of the wing itself is not the sole determining factor. That being said, it takes some creative airfoil design to allow for a big wing that does not produce large amounts of drag. The aft-loaded airfoils that first saw widespread use on the Boeing 757 and 767 series are examples of this type of design. Even with a relatively low sweep compared to earlier models, they produced far less drag per pound of aircraft even at high subsonic speeds.

 

SLOW SPEED

An assortment of flaps and slats allow this 757-200 to land at very slow speeds for an aircraft of its size.

An assortment of flaps and slats allow this 757-200 to land at very slow speeds for an aircraft of its size.

 

Conventional wisdom also says that if I want to fly slow, I should have a large wing. If the wing does not change shape, this is true. However, a small wing can become a large wing through the use of flaps, slats and slots. These devices change the camber and in the case of slotted flaps, the area of the original wing. Since nothing is free on this planet, the extra lift produced also produces extra drag. During takeoff and landing, the objective is to fly as slow as practical to reduce the amount of runway needed. For this reason, the flap/slat/slot solution is used on almost all airplanes to varying degrees. The best of both worlds is attained at the cost of complexity and cost.

 

RIDE

A small wing is advantageous for ride comfort and structural integrity at high speeds. With the increase in wing loading, gusts and turbulence have less impact on the aircraft due to its higher aerodynamic inertia. The best comparison is a ship cutting through 8 foot waves versus a little canoe being tossed around the same ocean. For an aircraft flying in turbulent regions or at high dynamic pressures (50 feet and the speed o’ heat), alleviating aerodynamic stress is a matter of keeping the plane in one piece. There may be reason to maintain a fairly large wing but create the same lift-curve effects through significant sweeping. An example of this requirement would include low level strike aircraft with a secondary air-to-air mission.

 

TURNING

Aircraft A vs Aircraft B and the difference in turning drag.

Aircraft A vs Aircraft B and the difference in turning drag.

Wing loading is very important during any type of maneuvering but for our discussion, we’ll focus on level turns. The moment an aircraft rolls into a turn, the angle of attack is increased. This creates more drag that has to be overcome with additional power/thrust. Obviously, the lower the angle of attack, the lower the turning drag generated. A low wing loading has the effect of reducing the induced and profile drag created during a turn. Using the chart, compare Aircraft A that requires 2 degrees alpha for level flight compared with Aircraft B that requires 5 degrees. As they both roll into a hard turn that demands an extra 10 degrees of alpha, Aircraft A will be turning with a total of 12 degrees alpha while Aircraft B will be at 15 degrees. It is quite clear which airplane will have the better turn performance with regards to drag.

 

CEILING

Yes, this high aspect ratio glider is efficient, but only at low relative speeds.

Yes, this high aspect ratio glider is efficient, but only at low relative speeds.

The oft repeated maxim is that a long thin wing is best for flying at high altitude. The real variable at play here is wing loading, not necessarily aspect ratio. If a given aircraft requires a large angle of attack in order to generate the necessary lift coefficient, excessive amounts of induced drag will result regardless of the speed. An aircraft designed for low indicated airspeeds will probably have a high aspect ratio wing with minimal sweep while one designed for higher speeds will have some level of sweep and a much lower aspect ratio. Either way, the wing has to have a low enough loading to allow for a reasonable angle of attack.

 

INERTIA

For visualization, imagine a dumbell like you’d find in a gym. Pick up a 5lb weight, hold it up about 2 feet over your other hand and let it go. Chances are you can probably catch it quite easily. If you attempt the same feat with a 25lb weight, the only way to catch it is to let your hand drop down to eliminate the shock of it impacting your hand, if you can hold onto it at all. This is the same inertia effect that wings experience as their loading goes up. For this reason wing loading can be thought of as “inertia loading”. You may experience some of these effects in certain aircraft with highly loaded wings in the form of post-stall gyrations or uncommanded rolls.

 

GA DESIGN

A lot of modern GA wings can thank the P-51 for leading the way for laminar flow airfoil sections and high speed planforms.

A lot of modern GA wings can thank the P-51 for leading the way for laminar flow airfoil sections and high speed planforms.

Modern high-speed general aviation designs often have partial laminar flow, medium to high aspect ratio wings. These wings are very efficient at low angles of attack, resulting in low drag at high cruise speeds. They do have the drawback of less than satisfactory behavior at high angles of attack and post-stall. Usually these foibles are corrected with the use of leading-edge cuffs, vortex generators, and washout. In the case that the problems cannot be rectified totally, the aircraft will have limitations such as “spins prohibited” in the manual. If the aircraft encounters turbulence or maneuvers too hard, the stall margin can easily be exceeded resulting in a departure from controlled flight. How bad this gets depends on the aircraft’s design, center of gravity location, altitude and true airspeed at the time.

 

TRANSPORT DESIGN

Aft loaded “supercritical” airfoils allow commercial aircraft to use mildly swept wings without sacrificing subsonic performance. The airfoils delay shockwave formation on the upper surfaces, effectively raising the critical Mach number to a higher value. For this reason, a large wing is feasible but not often used in practice. Ride comfort and the fact that massive flaps are industry standard all point towards ubiquitous use of a highly loaded, high aspect ratio wing.

If a designer wishes to take advantage of smaller airports, utilize lower V1 and Vref values, and produce less drag at high altitudes (eliminate step climbs), a larger wing may be something to consider. The current trend is to utilize effective aspect ratio devices such as winglets or sharklets. These artificially raise the aspect ratio without actually adding any span to the wing. The result is that aerodynamic performance is improved markedly over much of the envelope, although not by the same degree that a larger wing would provide.

 

FIGHTER/TACTICAL DESIGN

F-4, F-22 and F-15E all with highly swept, low aspect ratio wings.

F-4, F-22 and F-15E all with highly swept, low aspect ratio wings.

The advent of thrust vectoring has made nose-pointing an accurate exercise even down to zero airspeed. This does not negate the need for a well designed wing since not all maneuvers will be able to take advantage of vectoring. For aircraft with a low level strike mission, encountering turbulence at high speed can seriously fatigue the crew and at worst, damage the airframe. A high wing loading, significant sweep or a combination may be required to keep the stresses within limits. For all other regimes of combat, a large wing is desirable for maneuverability, payload carriage, and high altitude performance. Due to the forces sustained during combat maneuvering, a larger wing in this case entails additional chord rather than more span.

 

This is just a short highlight of the importance that wing loading carries (punintentional) for all airplanes. I hope you’re more aware of how critical this number is for everything that you do in the air.

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