In a recent question I asked, I was given an answer by Peter Kämpf and he described something about lift being created by a vortex used on delta wings and the Bird of Prey wing.

How exactly does vortex lift form to generate lift and on what other types of wing is it used on?

  • $\begingroup$ A picture would be helpful. $\endgroup$
    – Ethan
    Commented Sep 19, 2015 at 11:21
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ What does the WikiPedia article not give you? $\endgroup$
    – Simon
    Commented Sep 19, 2015 at 11:33
  • $\begingroup$ @Simon Didn't know their was wiki page. I am confused about a normal wing and how air is not sucked downwards due to the large vortex on the wing tip. $\endgroup$
    – Ethan
    Commented Sep 19, 2015 at 11:40
  • $\begingroup$ @mins: aeroalias only added the pictures after Ethan asked this question. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 19, 2015 at 12:53
  • $\begingroup$ @PeterKämpf no, aerolias' edit is from 11:17, this question has been posted at 11:19 $\endgroup$
    – Federico
    Commented Sep 19, 2015 at 13:13

2 Answers 2


The vortex lift is the method by which highly swept wings (like delta wings) produce lift at high angles of attack.

In the case of wings having sharp, highly swept leading edges like delta wings, the leading-edge separation vortex phenomenon occurs at subsonic speeds. However, the separation does not destroy the lift as in the case of low sweep wings; instead, it forms two vortices which are (nearly) parallel to the wing edges.

Vortex over Delta Wing

Vortices over a delta wing with a sweep angle of 70°, Separation in three-dimensional steady flow, ONERA

In case of Concorde, the vortices look like this:

Concorde Wing Vortices

Vortices over the Concorde wing, Separation in three-dimensional steady flow, ONERA

A cross-section of the vortices looks like this:

Flow above Concorde Wing

Flow above the Concorde Wing, Separation in three-dimensional steady flow, ONERA

Unlike the (bound) vortex of the conventional wing, these are real in the sense that they represent an actual mass of air rotating at high speed compared to the air in front of the wing.

The vortices form 'vortex sheets' along the wing. Air is sucked into the vortex sheets and accelerated downward. As the airspeed in the vortex is high, the pressure is low. This low pressure on the upper surface produces lift.

From Low Aspect Ratio Wings at High Angles of Attack at adg.stanford.edu:

...the leading edge vortices, increase the wing lift in a nonlinear manner. The vortex can be viewed as reducing the upper surface pressures by inducing higher velocities on the upper surface.

Lift due to Vortices

Source: adg.stanford.edu

Basically, the vortices increase the lift from the baseline (potential flow) values, with the extra force being equal to the loss of leading edge suction associated with the separated flow in high angle of attack highly swept wings. This analogy gives the same result as before.

Vortex lift in delta wings

A Concept of the Vortex Lift of Sharp-Edge Delta Wings based on a Leading-Edge suction Analogy, Edward C. Polhamus, NASA Technical note D-3767

A major advantage of vortex lift generation is that it is effective at high angles of attack, over which the wings would normally stall. Actually, that Concorde used this method of lift generation is the reason for the high AoA during landing and its droop down nose.

Lift cure comparison

Source: http://soliton.ae.gatech.edu

One thing to be noted is that vortex lift generation happens at high angles of attack or in case the wings are designed to generate separated flow (with sharp edges as in Concorde) in normal conditions. Otherwise, the lift generation is by conventional means.

The same mechanism is responsible for lift generation in:

  • Strakes

    F-18 Strake Vortices

    By U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class James R. Evans [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

  • Chines

    Nose Chine Vortex

    Image from Effects of Vertical Tail and Inlet/Strake Geometry on Stability of a Diamond-Wing Fighter Configuration by Mitchell E. Fossum et al., accessed through http://enu.kz/

  • Canards

    Su 30 Canard Vortex

    Source: forum.keypublishing.com

  • $\begingroup$ So the lift on the average airliner doesn't use the vortex as an advantage but generates lift in the normal way while delta wings use the vortex to generate lift. $\endgroup$
    – Ethan
    Commented Sep 19, 2015 at 14:03
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Yes. One main condition for vortex lift generation is high sweepback angles. The 'average' airliner has a wing sweep of ~30 degrees, while the vortex lift mechanism comes into play at sweep angle is around twice that value. Also, they rarely fly at high angles of attack (like delta wings). $\endgroup$
    – aeroalias
    Commented Sep 19, 2015 at 14:08
  • $\begingroup$ What aircraft is that in the photo below "strakes"? $\endgroup$
    – DrZ214
    Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 2:30
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @DrZ214 That is an F/A-18, the image is also part of the wikipedia article about strakes $\endgroup$
    – Bowdzone
    Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 6:10

What it is

Vortex lift needs two conditions:

  • High leading edge sweep (ideally 60° and above)
  • High angle of attack, the more sweep, the smaller the angle when vortex lift becomes effective.

Vortex lift is caused by flow separation at the leading edge. While this indicates a severe stall on unswept wings, the separated flow along a highly swept edge will roll up and will produce a conical, stable vortex. The speeds due to this helical movement of air cause air pressure over the wing to drop, which provides the suction that produces the lift.

If the angle of attack is increased further, the vortex becomes unstable and bursts. If this happens while it is still over the wing, the aircraft becomes unstable - the bursting of the vortex is a highly dynamic process, leading to buffet and an unstable, self-reinforcing rolling motion.

Where else is vortex lift used?

Vortex lift is helpful when lift is needed at high angles of attack or sideslip. Besides on delta wings, it is used in:

Pretty pictures

CFD simulation of high alfa flight

Picture of CFD simulations on the F-18, taken from this Aerospaceweb page.

The grey ribbons show how the flow curls up past the leading edge of the strake and stays close to the upper surface of the wing.

Flow visualtsation on delta wing

Flow visualisation on a delta wing (picture source). This picture was taken in a water tunnel, and dyes were injected at the leading edge to make the streamlines visible.


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