When the direction of forces is popularly explained, they say "the lifting force is directed perpendicularly, and the drag force is parallel to the oncoming flow".

example of a popular explanation

But what if it's a swept wing? In that case, which variant is more correct and why? Will the chosen variant apply to all objects affected by aerodynamic forces and, if not, what are the exceptions?

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Also, if in reality the forces are directed as in the second variant, are most of the further formulas created in such a way as to obtain a mathematical model of the first variant? For example, the lift curveslope of a swept wing will be less than that of a straight wing - is this the result of a conversion between models? I would appreciate as much information as possible, because I want to have a solid idea.


4 Answers 4


Lift is defined to be perpendicular to the flow. Drag is defined to be in the direction of the flow.

What your intuition is missing is that these are not the only two aerodynamic forces. There is also a third component of force -- typically called sideforce.

In many situations, the side force is zero or minimal, so we often work in the '2D' frame of just lift and drag. Most aircraft are symmetrical -- when they fly in a symmetrical condition, the side force generated by the left half of the aircraft cancels with the side force generated by the right half of the aircraft.

Side force is only present when the something is asymmetrical.

We can resolve any force into three perpendicular components -- Lift, Drag, Sideforce or X, Y, Z, or East, North, Up. At different times we make different choices of how to resolve a force because it makes analysis easier down the road.

Because of this, Lift, Drag, Sideforce is just one possible choice. It is the choice defined with lift perpendicular to the flow and drag parallel to the flow. One benefit of this choice is that sideforce is usually zero.

  • $\begingroup$ Excellent description! $\endgroup$ Feb 6, 2023 at 3:05

the direction of forces is popularly explained

Luckily enough science is not democratic: definition are not chosen by show of hands every 5 years but so that they make sense and cannot be mistaken.

When an object moves in a fluid, a fluid dynamic force arises. If we consider a 3D object moving in a 3D space, then this force can be decomposed in... well, 3 components.

One component is quite easy to choose: since a part of the fluid dynamic force is always pointing in the main direction of the flow (so called freestream or $V_{\infty}$), then one of those three components is simply aligned with the flow and termed drag.

Therefore the other two components are perpendicular in respect to the drag (i.e. in respect to the flow). How are they fixed? If the object is an aerodynamic object, then it makes sense to define one of those two perpendicular components as going from the belly to the upper surface of the body; this component is termed lift.

Finally, the third and last component points laterally from the right side to left side of the object.

So, variant 1 is the correct one.

The picture in your variant 2 is normally used to schematise how locally the airflow bends as it approaches the leading edge of a swept wing and is used to explain the reduction in transonic drag given by swept wings in respect to a straight one. Here there's a good explanation of this phenomenon.

  • $\begingroup$ By "popular explanation" I just meant that the total aerodynamic force in such explanations decomposed in 2 components, which made me think that there is no third. Big misunderstanding on my part $\endgroup$
    – BierRitter
    Feb 8, 2023 at 16:07
  • $\begingroup$ @BierRitter: just joking ūüėČ Yes there's a third one which normally is not taken into account except during manoeuvres or in case of helicopters $\endgroup$
    – sophit
    Feb 8, 2023 at 16:12
  • $\begingroup$ So, generally speaking, is it possible to say that the sideforce of a swept wing will be imperceptible at non-zero angles of attack? $\endgroup$
    – BierRitter
    Feb 8, 2023 at 16:31
  • $\begingroup$ @BierRitter: due to symmetry, what happens on the right wing equals and is opposite to what happens on the left one. So what happen laterally is normally zero in total. Maybe we can see to what happens on a oblique wing. $\endgroup$
    – sophit
    Feb 8, 2023 at 18:32

It is not a ‚Äúpopular explanation‚ÄĚ, it is the actual definition. To be more precise, there is some aerodynamic force and we call the component along the direction of airflow (relative to the wing) drag, and the component perpendicular to the flow lift. This applies in three dimensions, not just two.

Now two parallels are parallel in all views, so for drag, variant 1 is the only one possible.

For lift it is a bit more complicated though, because parallel to the flow might mean up, sideways or any oblique angle in between. For a symmetric aircraft the sideways components cancel, so the total lift will be up, but for each wing in isolation it may be slanted sideways.

But sweep does not slant it, dihedral does. Pressure always acts perpendicular to the surface, so lift is approximately perpendicular to the wing. And since horizontal swept wing is still horizontal, the lift will still be vertical. But if the wing has dihedral‚ÄĒis canted from horizontal laterally‚ÄĒthen the lift will be ‚Äútoed in‚ÄĚ by about that angle.

  • $\begingroup$ "Pressure always acts perpendicular to the surface, so lift is approximately perpendicular to the wing."??? You are conflating the concept of the aerodynamic force at a specific point with the total aggregate vector sum of all aerodynamic forces from every single point on an airframe. "Pressure always acts perpendicular to the surface" is only true for the former, and is not even wrong for the latter. $\endgroup$ Feb 6, 2023 at 3:11
  • $\begingroup$ @CharlesBretana, I am not conflating anything, just perhaps being a bit too fast. Because locally the pressure always acts perpendicular to the surface, any significant aerodynamic force must be perpendicular to some significant part of the surface. And since there is no surface facing sideways (except for a tiny bit at the tip), there cannot be any sideways force. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Feb 6, 2023 at 6:05
  • $\begingroup$ No, sorry you are. Saying that an aggregate, mathematical abstraction, that exists only as a defined component of another abstraction, (the vector sum of an infinite number of tiny forces all over the surface of an airframe, (which are normal to the surface), is normal to that surface, when the surface in question is not even flat, (so exactly which piece of the surface are yiu tslking about), is not even wrong. $\endgroup$ Feb 6, 2023 at 23:09
  • $\begingroup$ Or did I misunderstand what you said? $\endgroup$ Feb 6, 2023 at 23:10
  • $\begingroup$ @CharlesBretana If the pressure is constant, the integral of pressure times normal vector (= the total force) is equal to average of normal vector. Since the pressure gradients around the wing are limited (the air accelerates to equalize pressure), and since normal vector of most of the surface is close to the average, that integral (total force) will still always be close to the average normal vector. With more variation possible in the forward/aft direction then sideways, since there is more surface sloped fore/aft. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Feb 8, 2023 at 9:41

With "Variant 2", the statement that "the lifting force is directed perpendicularly (to the oncoming flow), and the drag force is parallel to the oncoming flow" would be accurate from a side view, but not from a top view, and also not from a head-on view or tail-on view.

So "Variant 2" is not an accurate depiction of the definitions of the Lift and Drag vectors for a swept wing.

"Variant 2" tends to beg the question of whether or not sweeping a wing causes it to generate some aerodynamic sideforce, acting toward the wingtip. Sideforce being a third aerodynamic force, defined as acting perpendicularly to both lift and drag. That is really an entirely separate question. This would have interesting consequences during sideslip, where one wing becomes "more swept" than the other wing, in relation to the actual direction of the airflow. Generally speaking, the answer to that question appears to be "no" -- and all-wing aircraft1, including swept-wing all-wing aircraft, are well known for generating minimal aerodynamic sideforce during a sideslip2. But I have seen a reference to the idea that "leading-edge suction" would in fact tend to cause that effect to some degree.3


  1. By "all-wing" aircraft, we mean flying-wing aircraft lacking tails and fuselages, whose cross-sectional area as seen in a side view is low. Such as the XB-35, XB-49, and B-2.

  2. See for example this passage from the 35th Wilbur Wright Memorial Lecture which Jack Northrop read to the Royal Aeronautical Society on May 29, 1947:

Side force effects: All-wing airplanes, particularly those without fins, have a very low crosswind derivative; thus a low side force results from sideslipping motion. Some crosswind force is probably important for precision flight, such as tight formation flying, bombing runs, gun training maneuvers, or pursuit. This importance arises because with low side force it becomes difficult to judge when sideslip is taking place, as the angle of bank necessary to sustain a steady sideslipping motion is small. This lack of side forces has been one of the first objections of pilots and others when viewing the XB-35. After flying in the N-9M or XB-35 the objection is removed, except for some of the specific cases mentioned above. For the correction of the lack of sideslip sense, a sideslip meter may be provided for the pilot or automatic pilot, and for very long-range aircraft there is a valuable compensating advantage in being able to fly under conditions of asymmetrical power without appreciable increase in drag.

  1. Email or on-line forum statement by Stephen Morris, co-designer of Bright Star Millennium and Swift rigid-wing ultralight hang gliders.
  • $\begingroup$ This answer would benefit from addressing the issue of whether we are referencing the free-stream flow or the local flow. Will hold off for a day or two so as not to appear to be trying distract from other more recent answer(s) -- !! $\endgroup$ Feb 7, 2023 at 13:36
  • $\begingroup$ First of all, thank you for the tips on where to learn more. In fact, I don't really understand much about how local flow affects the wing, and that may be why my question lacks specificity. $\endgroup$
    – BierRitter
    Feb 8, 2023 at 16:54

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