Is pressure drag the same thing as “air resistance”?

Is pressure drag the same thing as “air resistance”?

Yes. The air resistance you experience when you bicycle into the wind or hold your hand out the window of a car or jump from a plane with a parachute on is just pressure drag. In each of these cases, the air flowing around you slows in front of you (so that its pressure rises), speeds up on the sides of you (so that its pressure drops), and then becomes turbulent behind you (so that its pressure hovers near atmospheric pressure). With more pressure in front of you than behind you, you experience a net force in the downwind direction…the force of pressure drag.

My big square truck creates a lot of turbulence when it moves. Does my roof rack…

My big square truck creates a lot of turbulence when it moves. Does my roof rack (a factory-installed one, close to the roof) actually improve aerodynamics, like fuzz on a tennis ball? (Also, what about the air dam at the back end?)

I’m sure that modern car designers consider aerodynamics when building a car or truck. They do structure the trailing edge of the car to minimize its turbulent wake. But I doubt that a roof rack helps much. It’s probably too tall for the boundary layer on the car and extends into the free flowing stream beyond. As a result, it probably experiences its own pressure drag. The “fuzz” that trips the boundary layer has to be no taller than the boundary layer itself, otherwise it causes turbulence in the main airstream rather than preventing it. The same goes for the air dam.

Does the decreased density of the air in Denver make it easier to achieve turbul…

Does the decreased density of the air in Denver make it easier to achieve turbulent flow at the boundary layer of a baseball and therefore make the ball fly farther?

Whew, this is a toughie. The air in Denver is less dense, so it tends to respond better to viscous forces. On that account, it would tend to be less turbulent. But it is also “thinner” and less viscous, so it would tend to be more turbulent. I think that those two effects essentially cancel, so that the ball experiences the same degree of turbulence at any altitude. However, the air in Denver has less pressure, so it exerts smaller forces on the ball than air at sea level. Thus, although the flow properties aren’t affected by the increased altitude, the pressures involved are. The ball should certainly carry farther in Denver than at sea level. Imagine playing on the moon, where there’s no air at all. The ball wouldn’t experience any drag at all!

Please explain what “lift” is.

Please explain what “lift” is.

Suppose that a horizontal wind is approaching a smooth, stationary ball from the right. The ball will experience a drag force that pushes it toward the left. We call it a drag force because it acts to slow the ball’s motion through the air—in other words because it pushes the ball directly downwind. But if the ball isn’t uniform or if the ball is spinning, it may experience a force that isn’t directly downwind. If the ball experiences an aerodynamic force (a force due to the motion of the wind near its surface) that pushes it to the side, or that pushes it up or down, then it is experiencing a lift force. This lift force isn’t necessary up…it’s just to the side—at right angles to the downwind direction.

Does the design of balls (pentagons on soccer balls, lines on basketballs, panel…

Does the design of balls (pentagons on soccer balls, lines on basketballs, panels on volleyballs, etc.) have a purpose or are they merely there for design?

In most cases they are simply design. However, they do affect the flow of air over the ball and will change its motion. The classic examples of balls with designs that matter are golf balls and baseballs. A golf ball has dimples because they dramatically change the airflow over the ball and allow it to travel much farther. A baseball’s stitching also affects its flight from the pitcher to the mound and is very important to pitches like the knuckle ball and the spitball.

How does a boomerang work?

How does a boomerang work?

The correct way to throw a boomerang is overhand and, unlike a Frisbee, in a nearly vertical plane. (Usually the ideal angle is about 15° from vertical.) The boomerang is essentially a rotating airplane wing, and its shape produces lift using the Bernoulli effect in the same way an airplane wing does. But when it is thrown, notice that the top blade of the boomerang is moving faster through the air than the bottom blade, because of the rotation. This results in there being more lift on the top blade than on the bottom. From a right-handed thrower’s perspective, there is a lift up and to the left, more so at the top than at the bottom. The upward lift is what keeps the boomerang in the air. You might think the leftward twist flips the boomerang over, but wait! The boomerang is also a flying gyroscope. Leaning the gyroscopic boomerang over results in its turning to the left, much the same way that leaning a moving bicycle leftward toward the horizontal causes the front wheel to turn and not fall over. (This is also why spinning tops start to slowly turn their axis of rotation when they lean, a process called “precession”.) The boomerang doesn’t flip over, but instead turns its axis of rotation around in a large horizontal circle, and it comes back to you.

After a moment’s thought, you might wonder whether helicopters suffer the same effect. (How would a boomerang fly if thrown in a horizontal plane?) In fact, they do, and there is a tendency to pitch the helicopter upward (tip the nose up) precisely from this same effect, which the pilot instinctively corrects for.

(Thanks to Prof. Paul Draper, from the Physics Department of the University of Texas at Arlington, for writing this explanation.)

How does a Frisbee fly?

How does a Frisbee fly?

As you begin to move a Frisbee forward, the air in front of the Frisbee splits to flow either over the Frisbee or under it. Because of the Frisbee’s shape and the angle at which it’s held, the air that flows over the Frisbee has a longer distance to travel and arrives late at the back of the Frisbee. The air flowing under the Frisbee reaches the back first and initially flows upward, around the rear surface of the Frisbee. But once the Frisbee is moving fairly rapidly, this funny upward-flowing tail of air blows away from the back of the Frisbee. As it leaves, it draws the air flowing over the Frisbee with it and speeds that air up. As a result, the air over the Frisbee travels faster than the air under the Frisbee. But the airs above and below the Frisbee have the same amounts of total energy per gram. Since the faster moving air above the Frisbee has more kinetic energy than the slower moving air below the Frisbee, the air above the Frisbee must have less of some other form of energy than the air below the Frisbee. In fact, the air above the Frisbee has less pressure potential energy than the air below it—the air pressure above the Frisbee is less than that below the Frisbee. And since the pressure pushing on the bottom surface of the Frisbee is greater than the pressure pushing on the top surface of the Frisbee, there is a net upward pressure force on the Frisbee. This upward pressure force balances the downward weight of the Frisbee and keeps the Frisbee from falling.

How does fuzz on a tennis ball make it fly faster? It seems counterintuitive to …

How does fuzz on a tennis ball make it fly faster? It seems counterintuitive to me.

Yes, it is counterintuitive. The reason for the fuzz is that a swirling layer of air close to the ball makes a good buffer between the ball and the main airstream. As a result, the main airstream flows most of the way around the ball before it breaks away as a turbulent wake. Without the swirling layer of air on the ball’s surface, the main airstream encounters backward-flowing air near the ball’s surface and breaks away from the ball early, leaving a larger turbulent wake.

I am a little confused on how air pressure can drop as air flows through a small…

I am a little confused on how air pressure can drop as air flows through a small hole. I understand that speed and pressure are inversely proportional but aren’t volume and pressure inversely proportional as well?

If you squeeze air into a small space, its pressure will rise (yes, pressure and volume of stationary air are inversely proportional). But flowing air is a different story. When an airstream passes through a narrow channel, it must speed up and when it does, its pressure drops. That’s aerodynamics, not statics.