Frost forms only when the relative humidity reaches 100%

We flew from SeaTac to Maui last week. Because of snow on the ground and not enough deicer, many planes were unable to take off. On the return trip, the flight had a realtime listing on their t.v. screen of where we were (showing the progress we were making) and also showed altitude, flight speed and outdoor temperature. I noted that the outdoor temperature at 36,000 feet was 60 degrees below zero! So then I wondered….if planes can’t take off without deicer at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, how can they “fly” at even colder temperatures? — VN, Anacortes, Washington

The problem for planes isn’t the temperature, it’s the humidity. When the air reaches 100% relative humidity, moisture in that air begins to condense on objects such as plane wings. The moisture can also condense into rain, snow, or sleet and then fall onto those plane wings.

If the temperature of overly moist air is 32 F or below, planes preparing for takeoff can accumulate heavy burdens of ice. When water vapor condenses as ice directly onto the wings themselves, that condensation process is called deposition and is familiar to you as frost. Deposition is a relatively slow process, so most of the trouble for planes occurs when it is actually snowing or sleeting. Removing the ice then requires either heat or chemicals.

When the plane is flying at high altitudes, however, the air is extremely dry. Even though the air temperature is far below the freezing temperature of water, the fraction of water molecules in the air is nearly zero and the relative humidity is much less than 100%. That means that an ice cube suspended in that dry air would actually evaporate away to nothing. Technically, that “evaporation” of ice directly into water vapor is call sublimation and you’ve seen it before. Think of all the foods that have experienced freezer burn in your frost-free (i.e., extremely dry air) refrigerator or the snow that has mysteriously disappeared from the ground during a dry spell even though the temperature has never risen above freezing. Both are cases of sublimation — where water molecules left the ice to become moisture in the air.

Why does the ground move slowly when viewed from a jet?

When you traveling in a jet plane, why do objects on the ground look as though they are still or moving slowly? — K, India

When you watch something move, what you really notice is the change in the angle at which see you it. Nearby objects don’t have to be traveling fast to make you turn your head quickly to watch them go by so you perceive them as moving rapidly. An object that is heading directly toward you or away from you doesn’t appear to be moving nearly as quickly because its change in angle is much smaller.

When you watch a distant object move, you don’t see it change angles quickly so you perceive it as moving relatively slowly. Take the moon for example: it is moving thousands of miles an hour yet you can’t see it move at all. It’s just so far away that you see no angular change. And when you look down from a high-flying jet, the distant ground is changing angles slowly and therefore looks like it’s not moving fast.

Why does air speed up as it flows over an airplane wing?

Why does air speed up as it flows over an airplane wing? — MS

When air flows past an airplane wing, it breaks into two airstreams. The one that goes under the wing encounters the wing’s surface, which acts as a ramp and pushes the air downward and forward. The air slows somewhat and its pressure increases. Forces between this lower airstream and the wing’s undersurface provide some of the lift that supports the wing.

But the airstream that goes over the wing has a complicated trip. First it encounters the leading edge of the wing and is pushed upward and forward. This air slows somewhat and its pressure increases. So far, this upper airstream isn’t helpful to the plane because it pushes the plane backward. But the airstream then follows the curving upper surface of the wing because of a phenomenon known as the Coanda effect. The Coanda effect is a common behavior in fluids—viscosity and friction keep them flowing along surfaces as long as they don’t have to turn too quickly. (The next time your coffee dribbles down the side of the pitcher when you poured too slowly, blame it on the Coanda effect.)

Because of the Coanda effect, the upper airstream now has to bend inward to follow the wing’s upper surface. This inward bending involves an inward acceleration that requires an inward force. That force appears as the result of a pressure imbalance between the ambient pressure far above the wing and a reduced pressure at the top surface of the wing. The Coanda effect is the result (i.e. air follows the wing’s top surface) but air pressure is the means to achieve that result (i.e. a low pressure region must form above the wing in order for the airstream to arc inward and follow the plane’s top surface).

The low pressure region above the wing helps to support the plane because it allows air pressure below the wing to be more effective at lifting the wing. But this low pressure also causes the upper airstream to accelerate. With more pressure behind it than in front of it, the airstream accelerates—it’s pushed forward by the pressure imbalance. Of course, the low pressure region doesn’t last forever and the upper airstream has to decelerate as it approaches the wing’s trailing edge—a complicated process that produces a small amount of turbulence on even the most carefully designed wing.

In short, the curvature of the upper airstream gives rise to a drop in air pressure above the wing and the drop in air pressure above the wing causes a temporary increase in the speed of the upper airstream as it passes over much of the wing.

Since a typical commercial jetliner cruises at around 30,000 feet (higher than M…

Since a typical commercial jetliner cruises at around 30,000 feet (higher than Mt. Everest), where the air is very rarified, is there a mechanism to concentrate the air around the engine intake? — P

There certainly is such a mechanism. The air at a jetliner’s cruising altitude is much too thin to support life so it must be compressed before introducing it into the airplane’s passenger cabin. The compressed air is actually extracted from an intermediate segment of the airplane’s jet engines. In the course of their normal operations, these engines collect air entering their intake ducts, compress that air with rotary fans, inject fuel into the compressed air, burn the mixture, and allow the hot, burned gases to stream out the exhaust duct through a series of rotary turbines. The turbines provide the power to operate the compressor fans. Producing the stream of exhaust gas is what pushes the airplane forward.

But before fuel is injected into the engine’s compressed air, there is a side duct that allows some of that compressed air to flow toward the passenger cabin. So the engine is providing the air you breathe during a flight.

There is one last interesting point about this compressed air: It is initially too hot to breathe. Even though air at 30,000 feet is extremely cold, the act of compressing it causes its temperature to rise substantially. This happens because compressing air takes energy and that energy must go somewhere in the end. It goes into the thermal energy of the air and raises the air’s temperature. Thus the compressed air from the engines must be cooled by air conditioners before it goes into the passenger cabin.

I live under the flight path that leads into Sydney’s International/Domestic Air…

I live under the flight path that leads into Sydney’s International/Domestic Airport. As planes fly over, a sound follows them (3-4 seconds) like air folding in on itself. A slurping sound similar to sucking air in through your cheeks. This phenomenon does not happen all the time, but seems to happen when overcast. Any clues as to what is happening? — TA, Sydney, Australia

The sound you hear may be related to the vortices that swirl behind a plane’s wingtips as it moves through the air. These vortices form as a consequence of the wing’s lift-generating processes. Because the air pressure above a wing is lower than the air pressure below the wing, air is sucked around the wingtip and creates a swirling vortex. The two vortices, one at each wingtip, trail behind the plane for miles and gradually descend. You may be hearing them reach the ground after the airplane has passed low over your home. If someone reading this has another explanation, please let me know.

How do airplanes work? What is the engineering behind how an airplane flies?

How do airplanes work? What is the engineering behind how an airplane flies? — ZJ, Bangalore, India

An airplane supports itself in flight by deflecting the passing airstream downward. The plane’s wings push this airstream downward and the airstream reacts by pushing the wings upward. This action/reaction effect is an example of Newton’s third law of motion, which observes that forces always come in equal but oppositely directed pairs: if one object pushes on another, then the second object must push back on the first object with a force of equal strength pointing in the opposite direction. Even air obeys this law so that when the plane’s wings push air downward, the air must push the wings upward in response. In level flight, the deflected air pushes upward so hard that it supports the entire weight of the plane. Just how the airplane’s wings deflect the airstream downward to obtain this upward lift force is a marvel of fluid dynamics. We can view it from at least two perspectives: a Newtonian perspective which concentrates on the accelerations of the passing airstream and a Bernoullian perspective which concentrates on speeds and pressures in that airstream.

The Newtonian perspective is the most intuitive and where we will start. The airstream arriving at the forward or “leading” edge of the airplane wing splits into two separate flows that travel over and under the wing, respectively. The wing is shaped and tilted so that these two flows experience very different accelerations as they travel around the wing. The flow that goes under the wing encounters a downward sloping surface that pushes it downward and it accelerates downward. In response to this downward push, the air pushes upward on the bottom of the wing and provides part of the force that supports the plane.

The air that flows over the wing follows a more complicated route. At first, this flow encounters an upward sloping surface that pushes it upward and it accelerates upward. In response to this upward force, the air pushes downward on the leading portion of the wing’s top surface. But the wing’s top surface is curved so that it soon begins to slope downward rather than upward. When this happens, the airflow must accelerate downward to stay in contact with it. A suction effect appears, in which the rear or “trailing” portion of the wing’s top surface sucks downward on the air and the air sucks upward on it in response. This upward suction force more than balances the downward force at the leading edge of the wing so that the air flowing over the wing provides an overall upward force on the wing.

Since both of these air flows produce upward forces on the wing, they act together to support the airplane’s weight. The air passing both under and over the wings is deflected downward and the plane remains suspended.

In the Bernoullian view, air flowing around a wing’s sloping surfaces experiences changes in speed and pressure that lead to an overall upward force on the wing. The fact that each speed change is accompanied by a pressure change is the result of a conservation of energy in air passing a stationary surface—when the air’s speed and motional energy increase, the air’s pressure and pressure energy must decrease to compensate. In short, when air flowing around the wing speeds up, its pressure drops and when it slows down, its pressure rises.

When air going under the wing encounters the downward sloping bottom surface, it slows down. As a result, the air’s pressure rises and it exerts a strong upward force on the wing. But when air going over the wing encounters the up and down sloping top surface, it slows down and then speeds up. As a result, the air’s pressure first rises and then drops dramatically, and it exerts a very weak overall downward force on the wing. Because the upward force on the bottom of the wing is much stronger than the downward force on the top of the wing, there is an upward overall pressure force on the wing. This upward force can be strong enough to support the weight of the airplane.

But despite the apparent differences between these two descriptions of airplane flight, they are completely equivalent. The upward pressure force of the Bernoullian perspective is exactly the same as the upward reaction force of the Newtonian perspective. They are simply two ways of looking at the force produced by deflecting an airstream, a force known as lift.

Why are swept wings preferred for transonic/supersonic flight, but not for lower…

Why are swept wings preferred for transonic/supersonic flight, but not for lower speeds? — CL

While the designers of low speed planes focus primarily on lift and drag, designers of high speed planes must also consider shock waves—pressure disturbances that fan out in cones from regions where the plane’s surface encounters supersonic airflow. The faster a plane goes, the easier it is for the plane’s wings to generate enough lift to support it, but the more likelihood there is that some portions of the airflow around the plane will exceed the speed of sound and produce shock waves. Since a transonic or supersonic plane needs only relatively small wings to support itself, the designers concentrate on shock wave control. Sweeping the wings back allows them to avoid some of their own shock waves, increasing their energy efficiencies and avoiding shock wave-induced surface damage to the wings. Slower planes can’t use swept wings easily because they don’t generate enough lift at low speeds.

How does a fan compare to a propeller? Why does a fan blow air while a propeller…

How does a fan compare to a propeller? Why does a fan blow air while a propeller has “lift”? — DB, Austin, TX

A fan and a propeller are actually the same thing. Both are rotating wings that push the air in one direction and experience a reaction force in the opposite direction as a result. Each experiences a “lift” force, typically called “thrust,” in the direction opposite the airflow. If you put a strong fan on a low-friction cart or a good skateboard, it will accelerate forward as it pushes the air backward. Similarly, if you prevent a propeller plane from moving, its spinning blades will act as powerful fans.

What makes an airplane fly?

What makes an airplane fly? — SDH, Vicksburg, MS

While there are several ways to understand how air supports a plane’s weight, I will look at it first in terms of the deflection of the air flowing past the plane’s wings. As the plane moves forward, air flows both over and under the plane’s wings. It flows across the wing from its leading edge to its trailing edge. The air that strikes the inclined lower surface of the wing is deflected downward and leaves the wing’s trailing edge with a slight downward component to its motion. The air that flows over the arced and inclined upper surface of the wing travels a more complicated route, curving up, over, and down before leaving the wing’s trailing edge with a slight downward component to its motion. In both cases, the wing has made the air accelerate downward by pushing the air downward and it is the nature of our universe that the air must push upward on the plane in response. It’s a case of action and reaction: if one object pushes on another, the second object must push back on the first object with an equal but oppositely directed force. So the plane’s wing pushes down on the air and the air pushes up on the plane. When the plane is moving fast enough and the wings are properly shaped and/or tilted, the upward force that the air exerts on the wings can support the weight of the plane and suspend it in the air.

Another important view of flight involves air pressure in the streams of air flowing over and under the plane. When the air passing under the wing curves downward, it actually does so because the pressure just under the wing is higher than the pressure far from the wing—the air stream is experiencing an overall downward force due to this pressure imbalance and this downward force is deflecting the air stream downward. When the air passing over the wing arcs up, over, and down, it is also doing so because the pressure just above the wing is different from that far from the wing. In this case, the pressure just over the wing’s leading edge is quite high—enough to deflect the air stream upward initially. But the pressure over the rest of the wing’s upper surface is very low and the air stream curves inward toward the wing; arcing downward so that it leaves the wing’s trailing edge with a small downward component to its motion. Overall, there is a low average pressure above the wing and a high average pressure below it. This pressure imbalance produces an overall upward force on the wing and supports the plane’s weight.

These two views of flight—one involving deflection of the air stream and the other involving pressure imbalances—are intimately related to one another and really only two descriptions of the same process. Incidentally, the low pressure just over most the wing causes the air flowing over that wing to speed up. That’s Bernoulli’s equation in action—when air following a streamline experiences a drop in pressure, it accelerates in the forward direction.

What is the general theory of operation of a hydraulic turbine?

What is the general theory of operation of a hydraulic turbine? — GS, Fort Worth, Texas

A hydraulic turbine is essentially a fan run backward—while a fan adds energy to a passing fluid, a turbine extracts energy from a passing fluid. You can think of the fluid’s effects on the turbine blades in two different but equivalent ways. In one view, the fluid is deflected by its encounter with the canted turbine blades and as the blades push the fluid in one direction, the fluid pushes the blades in the opposite direction. This reaction force that the fluid exerts on the blades causes those blades to spin and does work on them—energy is transferred from the fluid to the blades.

In the other view, the blades “fly” through the fluid like the wings of an airplane. The fluid flow around each blade is such that the pressure is higher on one side of the blade than the other and the blade experiences a net force toward the lower pressure side. The blades move in the direction of this force, so the passing fluid does work on them—energy is transferred from the fluid to the blades.

These two views are completely equivalent. The fluid leaves the turbine blades traveling more slowly or at lower pressure, and it acquires a rotation in the direction opposite the turbine’s rotation.