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The Davis wing is an aircraft wing design that was used for some time on a variety of World War II aircraft, most notably a number of designs from Consolidated Aircraft, the most notable being the Consolidated B-24 Liberator. Thicker and with lower drag than most contemporary designs, it allowed high speeds and lift even at high angles of attack. Its use ended almost immediately following World War Two.
Development and use
Theory and testing
In the summer of 1937 Reuben H. Fleet, president of Consolidated Aircraft met with David R. Davis. Davis was a freelance aeronautical engineer who was looking for development funds for his wing design, the "Fluid Foil". Davis had designed the wing "in reverse", starting with a basic low-drag teardrop shape and then modifying it to provide lift. In comparison to conventional designs, Davis's design was relatively thick, having a short chord while still being deep enough to allow a high aspect ratio. Davis claimed the new wing would offer reduced drag over designs then in use, and would offer considerable lift even at a small angle of attack. Additionally the thickness of the wing provided space for fuel storage, or even embedding engines, an idea that was in vogue at the time.
He approached Consolidated to license it for their large flying boats. The ability to generate lift at low angles of attack made it particularly interesting for use in flying boats as it would reduce the need to pull up the nose for takeoff and landing, which was often limited in flying boats due to the way they interacted with the water.
Neither Fleet nor Consolidated's chief engineer, Isaac M. Laddon were impressed. Davis initially failed to convince them to try out his new design. A few days later, however, Laddon changed his mind and convinced Fleet to pay for construction of a model and wing wind tunnel test at the California Institute of Technology. They intended to compare the design to one that had been designed in-house.
Initial results of the Caltech wind tunnel tests were disappointing. Test instruments did not support Davis' predictions. However, Davis and others determined that the Caltech wind tunnel's instruments were not sufficiently sensitive to detect improvements from the Davis wing tests, despite being among the most sophisticated of their kind at the time. After re-calibration of the Caltech wind tunnel instruments, tests showed significantly improved readings.
The results of the wind tunnel test were so good they were unbelievable. Caltech recalibrated its wind tunnel and ran them a second time, and then a third time. When it delivered its report to Consolidated it indicated that the wing appeared to deliver everything it claimed, but Caltech also suggested it might be a wind tunnel fluke, something that gives good results only in the tunnel. This is a common problem since the walls of the tunnel affect the results by increasing the effective aspect ratio, or the Reynolds number used could have been incorrect.
Real world use
Fleet allowed it to be used on Consolidated's new twin engine flying boat, the Model 31 XP4Y Corregidor. The Model 31 made its first flight on 5 May 1939, vindicating the Davis wing. By this point Consolidated was already working on a secret project for a new bomber to improve on the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress that was just entering service, and had selected the Davis wing for this project as well. The Model 32, which would become the B-24 Liberator, first flew on 29 December 1939. The same basic wing would also be selected for the Consolidated B-32 Dominator.
Limitations and abandonment
Only later was the reason for the Davis wing's performance properly understood. Largely through accident, the shape maintained laminar flow further back from its leading edge, to about 20 or 30% of chord compared to the 5 to 20% managed by most aerofoil sections of the era. Although other designs greatly improved on this, with some designs maintaining laminar flow to upwards of 60% of chord, the Davis wing represented a great improvement at the time. In retrospect, the cross-section shows some resemblance to the NACA 6-series airfoils used on the North American P-51 Mustang.
The thick profile of the wing quickly led to it being superseded. Although aerodynamic tests prior to the war had demonstrated that high-speed drag was strongly associated with thick wing profiles due to wave drag, it was only late in the war that higher speeds made that an insoluble problem. As speeds of aircraft increased, the Davis wing's reduced low-speed drag could not compensate for its increased high-speed drag.
- Notes from a 1989 reunion of Consolidated Aircraft design engineers, San Diego, CA
- The Davis Wing and the Problem of Airfoil Design, Walter G. Vincenti, Technology and Culture, Vol. 27, No. 4, Oct., 1986, pp. 717–758
- The Dreese Airfoil Primer, Part 5: Laminar Airfoils Made Easy
- The Mystery Aerofoil - correspondence in Flight