When reading about flow separation I generally see a diagram like this:

enter image description here imp source: Wikimedia commons

This shows that the boundary layer slows as it passes over the wing, eventually creating an adverse pressure gradient. The effect being more pronounced close to the wing it will cause a reversal of flow and separation of the boundary layer.

I can easily see how this leads to flow separation, but I’m unsure as to what causes the boundary layer to slow down like this. I’ve read that the effect is independent of surface friction.

I know the air at the surface is stationary wrt the wing and its velocity increases the further away it gets. But if I look at the arrows in the diagram and select, say, the second one from the surface, it slows down as it goes along the wing, eventually reversing. At first I thought that the still air at the surface was somehow affecting it, but I don’t know how (shear stress?). But even at that, stationary air can not make it flow backwards.

So, what causes the flow closer to the surface to slow?


1 Answer 1


Friction plus pressure rise.

No, the effect certainly isn't independent of surface friction, otherwise the location and angle of attack of separation wouldn't change with Reynolds number.

First, friction will prevent the surface layer to become as fast as the outer flow in the suction peak, and once pressure rises, all air will slow down by the same amount. Now the already slower part near the wall will actually reverse because it slows down to a standstill and is attracted by the low pressure ahead.

Pressure has to rise past the suction peak in order for the air to get back to ambient pressure. The upper side suction is caused by the airfoil's curvature, and curvature over the rear part of the airfoil is very low or even negative - that is what makes the air assume ambient pressure again.

I think you know already my slightly longer answer on that topic, but I will link to it nevertheless. Please let me know if I need to explain more!

  • $\begingroup$ ‘and once pressure rises, all air will slow down by the same amount.‘ What causes the pressure to rise after the suction peak? I get into the Bernoulliian conundrum of “pressure rises because the air slows. The air slows because pressure rises.” I don’t quite get what’s causing it to rise/slow past the suction peak. $\endgroup$
    – TomMcW
    Commented Jan 6, 2019 at 20:53
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It's the geometry! A concave curvature causes an increase in pressure. To that you have to add the tendency of the air to return to atmospheric pressure (in subsonic flow). So even with a slightly convex surface, you get a gradual increase in pressure. Just like the air flow speeds up at the nose because there the curvature is strongly convex (small radius of curvature) at the nose of an airfoil, so it creates a suction peak. $\endgroup$
    – Daniel
    Commented Jan 6, 2019 at 21:08
  • $\begingroup$ @TomMcW: Thank you for asking; I added another paragraph. But also note Daniel's comment, which is spot on. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 6, 2019 at 22:54
  • $\begingroup$ @TomMcW For the simple reason that the zone of suction - the suction peak - has a beginning and an end. $\endgroup$ Commented May 7, 2020 at 13:06
  • $\begingroup$ @PeterKämpf Why would an adverse pressure gradient form in the case of a cylinder, where surface curvature doesn't change like an airfoil does? Why wouldn't flow keep accelerating toward the rear part of the cylinder? $\endgroup$
    – Frank
    Commented Jul 29, 2023 at 12:49

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