Photo: T-38, supersonic, from NASA.
The U.S. Air Force used to think every pilot needs to experience supersonic flight so we all got trained in it. They no longer do that so the training was either too expensive or unnecessary. In any case, most of us are constrained with a VMO that begins with a zero so this section of Basic Aerodynamics has been pared down a bit, but it hasn't gone away.
You might be thinking "High Speed Flight" doesn't apply to you and that might be true. But chances are it does apply to your wings. Critical Mach affects most jet aircraft that fly in the transonic range and that impacts your Stability and Control, so please read on...
Oh yes, most of this comes from my notes from Air Force pilot training with a little help from a number of the references listed at the bottom of the page.
Figure: Critical Mach, from Eddie's notebook.
If the speed of the air foil is such that all of the local air flow is subsonic, the air foil is said to be below its critical Mach number. The lift and drag characteristics of the airfoil are, for the most part, conventional.
At the point where the first hint of supersonic air flow occurs above the wing, the air foil is said to be at its critical Mach number. This is the last point at which air can be considered incompressible and there is no shock wave to disturb the local air flow.
As critical Mach number is exceeded a normal shockwave forms between the boundary of supersonic and subsonic airflow. The area in front of this shockwave tends to be smooth, as the airflow has a gradual transition over the leading edge of the airfoil.
Behind the shockwave is a greatly increased static pressure, fighting to pull up the boundary layer. There is a tug of war between the kinetic energy of the air holding it to the airfoil, and the static pressure pulling it away. As the speed of the airfoil is further increased, the static pressure begins to win out and airflow separation occurs.
Figure: Wing sweepback effects, from Hurt, figure 3.14.
[Hurt, pg. 223]
Figure: Effect of Wing Sweep on Airflow Normal to the Leading Edge, from [Davies, pg. 97]
See Basic Aerodynamics / Stability for more about wing sweep.
[Davies, pg. 24] With the advent of the big jet three things occurred to make life even more difficult. The size of the aeroplane increased enormously and, with increase altitude capability, the speed increase difficulty was compounded by Mach number effects which caused pitch changes on the aeroplane, upset the pressure distribution over the control surfaces and brought about unwanted changes in hinge moments. It was about this time that the design of the pure aerodynamic control was seen to be, perhaps not impossible, but certainly very difficult, costly and time consuming. Something was needed to remove the problems — and the answer lay in operating the control surface by pure power.
As we've seen, the aerodynamic forces on a wing change at critical Mach. Using powered flight controls and increasing the wing sweep help, but these fixes may not be enough for some wings.
Portions of this page can be found in the book Flight Lessons 1: Basic Flight, Chapter 18.
14 CFR 25, Title 14: Aeronautics and Space, Federal Aviation Administration, Department of Transportation
Air Training Command Manual 51-3, Aerodynamics for Pilots, 15 November 1963
Connolly, Thomas F., Dommasch, Daniel 0., and Sheryby, Sydney S., Airplane Aerodynamics, Pitman Publishing Corporation, New York, NY, 1951.
Davies, D. P., Handling the Big Jets, Civil Aviation Authority, Kingsway, London, 1985.
Dole, Charles E., Flight Theory and Aerodynamics, 1981, John Wiley & Sons, Inc, New York, NY, 1981.
FAA-H-8083-15, Instrument Flying Handbook, U.S. Department of Transportation, Flight Standards Service, 2001.
Gulfstream G450 Airplane Flight Manual, Revision 35, April 18, 2013.
Gulfstream G450 Aircraft Operating Manual, Revision 35, April 30, 2013.
Hage, Robert E. and Perkins, Courtland D., Airplane Performance Stability and Control, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1949.
Hurt, H. H., Jr., Aerodynamics for Naval Aviators, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc., New York NY, 2012.
Technical Order 1T-38A-1, T-38A/B Flight Manual, USAF Series, 1 July 1978.