Transition prediction in two-dimensional laminar boundary layers developing on airfoil sections at subsonic speeds and very low turbulence levels is still a challenge. The commonly used semi-empirical prediction tools are mainly based on linear stability theory and do not account for nonlinear effects present unavoidably starting with certain stages of transition. One reason is the lack of systematic investigations of the weakly nonlinear stages of transition, especially of the strongest interactions of the instability modes predominant in non-self-similar boundary layers. The present paper is devoted to the detailed experimental, numerical, and theoretical study of weakly nonlinear subharmonic resonances of Tollmien-Schlichting waves in an airfoil boundary layer, representing main candidates for the strongest mechanism of these initial nonlinear stages. The experimental approach is based on phase-locked hot-wire measurements under controlled disturbance conditions using a new disturbance source being capable to produce well-defined, complex wave compositions in a wide range of streamwise and spanwise wave numbers. The tests were performed in a low-turbulence wind tunnel at a chord Reynolds number of Re = 0.7 × 106. Direct numerical simulations (DNS) were utilized to provide a detailed comparison for the test cases. The results of weakly nonlinear theory (WNT) enabled a profound understanding of the underlying physical mechanisms observed in the experiments and DNS. The data obtained in experiment, DNS and WNT agree basically and provide a high degree of reliability of the results. Interactions occurring between components of various initial frequency-wavenumber spectra of instability waves are investigated by systematic variation of parameters. It is shown that frequency-detuned and spanwise-wavenumber-detuned subharmonic-type resonant interactions have an extremely large spectral width. Similar to results obtained for self-similar base flows it is found that the amplification factors in the frequency-detuned resonances can be even higher than in tuned cases, in spite of the strong base-flow non-self-similarity. An explanation of this unusual phenomenon is found based on the theoretical analysis and comparison of experimental, theoretical, and DNS data.

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