A supercritical airfoil is an airfoil designed, primarily, to delay the onset of wave drag in the transonic speed range. Supercritical airfoils are characterized by their flattened upper surface, highly cambered (curved) aft section, and greater leading edge radius as compared to traditional airfoil shapes. The supercritical airfoils were designed in the 1960s, by then NASA engineer Richard Whitcomb, and were first tested on the TF-8A Crusader. While the design was initially developed as part of the supersonic transport (SST) project at NASA, it has since been mainly applied to increase the fuel efficiency of many high subsonic aircraft. Research in 1940 by DVL's K. A. Kawalki led to subsonic profiles very similar to the supercritical profiles, which was the basis for the objection in 1984 against the US-patent specification for the supercritical airfoil. The supercritical airfoil shape is incorporated into the design of a supercritical wing.
Research aircraft of the 1950s and 60s found it difficult to break the sound barrier, or even reach Mach 0.9, with conventional airfoils. Supersonic airflow over the upper surface of the traditional airfoil induced excessive wave drag and a form of stability loss called Mach tuck. Due to the airfoil shape used, supercritical wings experience these problems less severely and at much higher speeds, thus allowing the wing to maintain high performance at speeds closer to Mach 1. Techniques learned from studies of the original supercritical airfoil sections are used to design airfoils for high-speed subsonic and transonic aircraft from the Boeing 777 to the McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II.
Supercritical airfoils have four main benefits: they have a higher drag divergence Mach number, they develop shock waves farther aft than traditional airfoils, they greatly reduce shock-induced boundary layer separation, and their geometry allows for more efficient wing design (e.g., a thicker wing and/or reduced wing sweep, each of which may allow for a lighter wing). At a particular speed for a given airfoil section, the critical Mach number, flow over the upper surface of an airfoil can become locally supersonic, but slow down to match the pressure at the trailing edge of the lower surface without a shock. However, at a certain higher speed, the drag divergence Mach number, a shock is required to recover enough pressure to match the pressures at the trailing edge. This shock causes transonic wave drag, and can induce flow separation behind it; both have negative effects on the airfoil's performance.
At a certain point along the airfoil, a shock is generated, which increases the pressure coefficient to the critical value Cp-crit, where the local flow velocity will be Mach 1. The position of this shockwave is determined by the geometry of the airfoil; a supercritical foil is more efficient because the shockwave is minimized and is created as far aft as possible thus reducing drag. Compared to a typical airfoil section, the supercritical airfoil creates more of its lift at the aft end, due to its more even pressure distribution over the upper surface.
In addition to improved transonic performance, a supercritical wing's enlarged leading edge gives it excellent high-lift characteristics. As a result, aircraft utilizing a supercritical wing have superior takeoff and landing performance. This makes the supercritical wing a favorite for designers of cargo transport aircraft. A notable example of one such heavy-lift aircraft that uses a supercritical wing is the C-17 Globemaster III.