Mach buffet arises when airflow separates on the upper surface of a wing behind a shock wave. All other things being equal, shock wave strength increases as the local airflow speed ahead of the shock wave increases. Mach buffet is a function of the speed of the airflow over the wing—not necessarily the forward speed of the airplane, and the shock wave strength, rather than a stall, creates the airflow separation.

Mach buffet may result from two different conditions in cruise. At high-speed cruise, a shock wave that becomes too strong as the airflow speeds up over the upper surface causes a buffet. At low-speed cruise, the flow has a greater turn to make to follow the wing’s upper surface. The air speeds up to do that and may exceed Mach 1 over the upper surface.

The shock wave position is different between the two situations. At high speed and a lower AOA, the shock wave tends to move aft. So when the flow separates behind the shock, that separated flow acts over a small range of the chord. In some cases, the separated flow acting on a small surface area may produce a little buzz. At low-speed cruise, the true airspeed is still high, but the shock wave does not move as far aft as it does in high-speed cruise. The separated flow behind the shock wave acts over a larger portion of the chord, which leads to a more significant effect on aircraft control.

The altitude at which an airplane flying at MMO would experience buffeting with any increase in AOA determines the absolute or aerodynamic ceiling. This is the altitude where:

  • If an airplane flew any faster, it would exceed MMO leading to high-speed Mach buffet.
  • If an airplane flew any slower, it would require an angle of attack leading to low-speed Mach buffet.
This region of the airplane’s flight envelope is known as “coffin corner.” Conceivably, a buffet could be the first indication of an issue at altitude, and pilots should understand the cause of any buffet in order to respond appropriately.

An increase in load factor (G factor) will raise the low-end buffet speed. For example, a jet airplane flying at 51,000 feet altitude at 1.0 G and a speed of 0.73 Mach that experiences a 1.4 G load, may encounter low-speed buffet. Consequently, a maximum cruising flight altitude and speed should be selected, which will allow sufficient margin for maneuvering and turbulence. The pilot should know the manufacturer’s recommended turbulence penetration speed for the particular make and model airplane. This speed normally gives the greatest margin between the high-speed and low-speed buffets.