A critical aspect of aircraft design has always been to fit as many functional surfaces or components into a given area as possible. A prominent example of this is the wing, which may contain a number of added control surfaces, including aircraft ailerons, flaps, and winglets. In addition to these elements, which all lie across the trailing edge of the wings, many aircraft also contain slats, which are critical devices found on the leading edge. In this blog, we will discuss the history of slats, their purpose, and how they work.
Slats are far from new inventions. In fact, the very first aircraft to be equipped with these aerodynamic surfaces took flight in 1918. While not initially achieving widespread popularity, slats did become popular in one particular class of aircraft: short takeoff and landing (STOL). These aircraft are explicitly designed to safely take off, given the shortest runway length possible. As such, every STOL is optimized to feature a high power to weight ratio, low drag, and a higher lift coefficient when possible. While the first two variables may be accounted for through a more powerful engine and the addition of winglets, the latter would prove easiest to achieve with the implementation of leading-edge slats.
Slats are movable or immovable surfaces found on the front of fixed-wing aircraft that help generate a higher lift coefficient by increasing the wings' operating angle of attack. In the context of aerodynamics, the angle of attack refers to the angle between the chord line and the oncoming wind through which the aircraft is flying. This angle is directly related to the lift coefficient, which, when elevated, decreases the speed required in order for the aircraft to take flight. As a result, pilots take advantage of slat actuation to help facilitate shorter takeoffs and landings while also enabling easier handling when the vessel is close to a stall.
Aircraft slats differ in size and maneuverability between aircraft. The most straightforward design, which is found on low-speed and training aircraft, is fixed. This configuration is easiest to implement and requires the least maintenance but also carries the issue of increased induced drag. Other models use spring-loaded automatic slats, which remain fixed during the majority of the flight due to the overwhelming force acting upon them by the air. At slower speeds, this force is less dramatic, allowing the slats to move into their functional position. Finally, most commercial airliners employ an electric or hydraulic-powered slat system that the pilot can modulate.
Like all flight surfaces, the slats should be routinely inspected and regularly maintained. Additionally, since they lie on the leading edge of the aircraft, slats are exposed to considerably more pressure than other components when retracted. Similar to other dual-actuating surfaces, slats should move symmetrically at all times. If one side were to move at a different speed or angle than the other at near-stall speeds, dramatic aerodynamic consequences would quickly manifest. Like other external flight surfaces, slats may occasionally undergo non-destructive testing (NDT) to detect any potential cracks or other signs of fatigue.
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