glancing angle

Angle of incidence

Angle of incidence is a measure of deviation of something from "straight on", for example:


In geometric optics, the angle of incidence is the angle between a ray incident on a surface and the line perpendicular to the surface at the point of incidence, called the normal. The ray can be formed by any wave: optical, acoustic, microwave, X-ray and so on. In the figure above, the red line representing a ray makes an angle θ with the normal (dotted line). The angle of incidence at which light is first totally internally reflected is known as the critical angle. The angle of reflection and angle of refraction are other angles related to beams.

Grazing angle

When dealing with a beam that is nearly parallel to a surface, it is sometimes more useful to refer to the angle between the beam and the surface, rather than that between the beam and the surface normal, in other words 90° minus the angle of incidence. This angle is called a glancing angle or grazing angle. Incidence at small grazing angle is called "grazing incidence".

Grazing incidence is used in X-ray spectroscopy and atom optics, where significant reflection can be achieved only at small values of the grazing angle. Ridged mirrors are designed for reflection of atoms coming at small grazing angle. This angle is usually measured in milliradians.


In aviation, angle of incidence is the angle between the wing's chord and the longitudinal axis of an aircraft (a fixed value). The figure to the right shows a side view of part of an aeroplane. The wing (dotted blue line) makes an angle a with the longitudinal axis (roll axis) of the aircraft (solid blue line). The wings are typically mounted at a small positive angle of incidence, to allow the fuselage to be "flat" to the airflow in normal cruising flight. Angles of incidence of about 6° are common on most general aviation designs.

Another term for angle of incidence in this context is rigging angle. It should not be confused with the angle of attack, which is the angle the wing chord presents to the airflow in flight. Note that some ambiguity in this terminology exists, as some engineering texts that focus solely on the study of airfoils and their medium may use either term when referring to angle of attack. The use of the term "angle of incidence" to refer to the angle of attack occurs chiefly in British usage.

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