Sound coming from an airplane is the result of the air being disturbed as the airplane moves through it, and the resulting pressure waves that radiate out from the source of the disturbance. For a slow moving airplane, the pressure waves travel out ahead of the airplane, traveling at the speed of sound. When the speed of the airplane reaches the speed of sound, however, the pressure waves (sound energy) cannot get away from the airplane. At this point the sound energy starts to pile up, initially on the top of the wing, and eventually attaching itself to the wing leading and trailing edges. This piling up of sound energy is called a shock wave. If the shock waves reach the ground, and cross the path of a person, they will be heard as a sonic boom. Figure 3-76A shows a wing in slow speed flight, with many disturbances on the wing generating sound pressure waves that are radiating outward. View B is the wing of an airplane in supersonic flight, with the sound pressure waves piling up toward the wing leading edge.
Normal Shock Wave
When an airplane is in transonic flight, the shock wave that forms on top of the wing, and eventually on the bottom of the wing, is called a normal shock wave. If the leading edge of the wing is blunted, instead of being rounded or sharp, a normal shock wave will also form in front of the wing during supersonic flight. Normal shock waves form perpendicular to the airstream. The velocity of the air behind a normal shock wave is subsonic, and the static pressure and density of the air are higher. Figure 3-77 shows a normal shock wave forming on the top of a wing.
Oblique Shock Wave
An airplane that is designed to fly supersonic will have very sharp edged surfaces, in order to have the least amount of drag. When the airplane is in supersonic flight, the sharp leading edge and trailing edge of the wing will have shock waves attach to them. These shock waves are known as oblique shock waves. Behind an oblique shock wave the velocity of the air is lower, but still supersonic, and the static pressure and density are higher. Figure 3-78 shows an oblique shock wave on the leading and trailing edges of a supersonic airfoil.
Earlier in the discussion of high-speed aerodynamics, it was stated that air at supersonic speed acts like a compressible fluid. For this reason, supersonic air, when given the opportunity, wants to expand outward. When supersonic air is flowing over the top of a wing, and the wing surface turns away from the direction of flow, the air will expand and follow the new direction. At the point where the direction of flow changes, an expansion wave will occur. Behind the expansion wave the velocity increases, and the static pressure and density decrease. An expansion wave is not a shock wave. Figure 3-78 shows an expansion wave on a supersonic airfoil.