The title sums up my question pretty well.

I've searched all over this site, having read many of the questions and answers to various supercritical wing topics, but I haven't found any mention of disadvantages to using them.

Are there any?

  • $\begingroup$ My guess: drag or lift/drag ratio at low to medium sub sonic speed is sub optimal. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 13, 2017 at 3:09

1 Answer 1


A supercritical airfoil has these characteristics:

  • Large leading edge radius
  • Comparably flat upper surface
  • Rounded lower surface with a maximum thickness location at around 50%
  • Flat or even negative camber in the forward section
  • High positive camber in the rear section (rear loading)

The large leading edge radius allows it to create more lift than comparable airfoils at high angle of attack. After R. Whitcomb re-invented supercritical airfoils (they had first be developed by K. A. Kawalki in Germany in 1940, and British airfoil research resulted in similar shapes, first used in the VC-10), he transferred some of their characteristics to a GA airfoil, the GA(W)-1.

From the Wikipedia article on Whitcomb:

The unusual airfoil unexpectedly aided general aviation as well; its rather blunt leading edge allowed it to generate high lift coefficients before stalling, and Whitcomb published a low-speed airfoil which he called GA(W)-1; it is now routinely used in light aircraft and gliders.

As usual, Wikipedia is mostly correct, but the use of the GA(W)-1 on gliders is everything but routine. This gives an indication of their drawbacks:

  1. The low forward camber limits the range of the laminar bucket to lower lift coefficients. A good glider airfoil tries to maintain the laminar bucket almost up to stall.

  2. A positive camber throughout will produce higher maximum lift coefficients than what a supercritical airfoil is capable of. That is why the GA(W)-1 uses only the blunt nose and the rear loading, but not the camber distribution of supercritical airfoils.

  3. The high rear loading gives them a large, negative pitch coefficient which translates into a larger travel of the center of pressure over angle of attack, requiring a larger horizontal tail. In airliners this does not matter because their large flaps dictate the size of the tail.

  • $\begingroup$ Funny you (er, Wikipedia) should mention using supercritical wings on gliders... I gleaned (from the Q&A here on Aviation SE) that supercritical airfoils benefit aircraft whose flight regimes are in the high subsonic range. I can't think of any gliders going that fast! $\endgroup$
    – pr1268
    Commented Sep 13, 2017 at 12:52
  • $\begingroup$ @pr1268 A few gliders are very fast, even supersonic. For example, the 'Shuttle'... $\endgroup$
    – xxavier
    Commented Sep 13, 2017 at 12:57
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @pr1268: For one, the GA(W)-1 is not a supercritical airfoil anymore. Also, it is not routinely used on gliders, regardless of what Wikipedia claims. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 13, 2017 at 13:57
  • $\begingroup$ @xxavier: Okay, but can the Space Shuttle soar on thermals for long periods of time? ;-) $\endgroup$
    – pr1268
    Commented Sep 14, 2017 at 8:52
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @pr1268 No, but we were talking about gliders, not sailplanes... $\endgroup$
    – xxavier
    Commented Sep 14, 2017 at 9:44

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