I'm simplifying here, but every introduction to flying shows us that the profile of a wing leads to lower pressure on the upper side of the wing, hence the wing and the plane attached to it will be pulled up.

All right.

How does that explain a plane flying inverted? If the explanation was right, the plane would pull itself towards earth.


Normally, an airfoil is optimized for best lift/drag (L/D) efficiency for a certain flight profile (usually a compromise). Since most of the time for most aircraft inverted flight is not an issue, you get an airfoil that is optimized for upright flight, and this is best achieved with asymmetric geometries.

However, depending on the angle of attack any airfoil can (and will) generate "negative" lift, only much less efficiently so, than for the optimized regime, resulting in increased drag.

The desired angle of attack for conventional aerodynamically controlled aircraft is maintained by the elevator. For symmetric airfoils commonly used for aerobatic planes, the performance for upright and inverted flight is quite similar. For 99% of all other airfoils inverted flight will work up to a certain point, depending on the available power, CG, the maximum lift and rudder forces availabe before stall. As a result, for some aircraft, a stable inverted flight cannot be maintained, while for others it could be (but with varying penalty to performance, stall speed etc). The aerodynamical possiblity of inverted flight is of course limited by structural and other considerations.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ There is no such thing as 'negative lift'. The wing produces a force (lift) equal the acceleration of a mass of air away from the flight path times the mass of that air. To fly in level flight this mass x acceleration vector is equal and opposed to the acceleration of gravity. It matters not if the shiney side of the airplane is facing the sky or the ground. $\endgroup$ Jan 21 '14 at 6:06
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ @JimInTexas thus the quotation marks. $\endgroup$
    – yankeekilo
    Jan 21 '14 at 6:24
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ @JimInTexas Of course there is such a thing as negative lift. Force is a vector quantity, having both a direction and a magnitude. For the direction to be meaningful, it must be defined in relation to some frame of reference. Defining it relative to the airfoil is generally most useful for aerodynamics. Generally, this frame of reference will be defined such that 'the shiny side' is considered positive. Thus, at AoA such that lift is produced in the other direction (regardless of the orientation of the foil with respect to the ground,) the lift vector will indeed be negative. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Feb 5 '15 at 15:55
  • $\begingroup$ @reirab perhaps I should work on this answer to remove some of the fuzziness - or feel free to edit. $\endgroup$
    – yankeekilo
    Feb 5 '15 at 16:10
  • $\begingroup$ @yankeekilo The answer seems fine to me. I was just addressing Jim's comment. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Feb 5 '15 at 16:14

This relation between a wing's curvature and a pressure difference on both sides is often part of the 'equal transit time' explanation; air on the curved side has to traverse a longer distance in the same amount of time, therefore goes faster, which leads to a lower pressure. This explanation is very common and completely wrong.

In normal flight, pitching the nose up causes the aircraft to climb because the wings meet the air at a steeper angle; the lift increases. It makes sense that rotating the wings in the opposite direction decreases lift. In fact, point the nose down far enough and the wings will produce no lift at all. Beyond that, the generated lift becomes negative and the wings will start to pull the aircraft down.

During our hypothetical manoeuvre, our attitude has varied by about 10°. That's not exactly flying upside down yet, the curved side of the wings were on top the entire time. Whether or not the lift was pointing up as well, depended on the angle at which the wings meet the air, the angle of attack.

The same is true for inverted flight. If we find ourselves at an attitude where the wings are pulling us down, we raise the nose. At first, the downward lift will disappear and at higher angles of attack, start pointing up and grow larger. At sufficient airspeeds and angles of attack, we have enough lift to maintain altitude upside down.

So why do wings need to be curved at all? They don't. Flat wings also provide lift at non-zero angles of attack and are perfectly usable, but not very efficient. Properly shaped airfoils create more lift and less drag. To find out why, consult a more accurate explanation of how planes really fly.

  • $\begingroup$ See my follow up: aviation.stackexchange.com/questions/1157/… $\endgroup$
    – Krumelur
    Jan 19 '14 at 14:10
  • $\begingroup$ I know this answer is over a year old, but I must commend Marcks for coming up with (or finding) an answer more 'true' yet understandable. $\endgroup$
    – CGCampbell
    Feb 5 '15 at 14:39
  • $\begingroup$ There's even a nice GIF demonstrating that the "equal time of flight" is simply false: upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/99/Karman_trefftz.gif $\endgroup$
    – Roman
    Mar 19 '15 at 17:09
  • $\begingroup$ FYI. The T-38 wing is symmetrical. i.e. there is no "extra distance" for air flow over the top of the wing. However, when in level flight the aircraft is actually about 2-3 degrees nose up. $\endgroup$
    – radarbob
    May 12 '15 at 3:19
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @romkyns This video is a better demonstration, since it shows an actual physical set up. The dots in that GIF could have been programmed to move in any way at all. (OK, they do seem to be an accurate representation but animated dots follow the will of their animator.) $\endgroup$ Nov 14 '15 at 21:38

Short answer is that explanation is wrong. How planes actually generate lift is far more complicated.

  • $\begingroup$ I'd say it is simpler. Lift is created by making air go down. $\endgroup$ Feb 12 at 16:30
  • $\begingroup$ @2NinerRomeo assuming that's true (which it isn't) the question of how planes make air go down is also complicated. $\endgroup$
    – OrangeDog
    Feb 12 at 16:31
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe you like the panel method, circulation theory, or the Prandtl lifting line theory. Maybe you’d like to quibble about the reference frame for defining “down” or what counts as a “push” or a “pull” maybe you’ve implemented a Navier-Stokes solution for finite wings. At the end of the day, if you’ve made lift, you’ve altered the momentum of the air that you’ve moved through. I suggest instead of saying “Bernoulli is wrong” or anyone else for that matter, acknowledge the merits of their argument while offering your refinements. People will find it informative and your rep will improve. $\endgroup$ Feb 12 at 16:52
  • $\begingroup$ To make my point clear, the concept of lift can be expressed simply. When it comes to derivation of a quantitative model with usable fidelity, I would agree that greater complexity is involved. $\endgroup$ Feb 12 at 17:01

Bernoulli's Principle (airfoil shape) is only one of the lifting forces.

Equally important is deflection (Newton's law), and on propellor aircraft, accelerated airflow.

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ Please consider expanding your answer. At its current state it is correct, but too general to be useful if the reader is unfamiliar with the topic. $\endgroup$
    – kevin
    Feb 5 '15 at 8:49
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Newton's law of lift is plain wrong. It starts to become correct at hypersonic speed, but at the low speeds Newton had in mind he was just guessing what happens, and guessed wrong. Maybe you mean Newton's first law of motion? Then it would be more illuminating to talk of an impulse transfer between aircraft and air. $\endgroup$ Feb 5 '15 at 12:12

'Newtonian' lift is the upward reaction of the wing to its downward deflection of the air-stream. The most efficient way to deflect the airstream is a gradual acceleration, accomplished by a concave lower surface. The upper surface shape must prevent premature 'separation' (chaotic vacuum eddies) of the upper airflow. A symmetric wing can still deflect the air-stream, depending on its angle-of-attack; it has the same lift and drag whether right-side-up or inverted, which is not as efficient as a right-side-up normal wing, but better than an inverted normal wing.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.