Human flight has become a tired fact of modern life. At any given moment, roughly 5,000 airplanes crisscross the skies above the United States alone, amounting to an estimated 64 million commercial and private takeoffs every year [source:NATCA]. Consider the rest of the world's flight activity, and the grand total is incalculable. It is easy to take the physics of flight for granted, as well as the ways in which we exploit them to achieve flight. We often glimpse a plane in the sky with no greater understanding of the principles involved than a caveman. How do these heavy machines take to the air? To answer that question, we have to enter the world of fluid mechanics.
Physicists classify both liquids and gases as fluids, based on how they flow. Even though air, water and pancake syrup may seem like very different substances, they all conform to the same set of mathematical relationships. In fact, basic aerodynamic tests are sometimes performed underwater. To put it simply, a salmon essentially flies through the sea, and a pelican swims through the air. The core of the matter is this: Even a clear sky isn't empty. Our atmosphere is a massive fluid layer, and the right application of physics makes it possible for humans to traverse it. In this article, we'll walk through the basic principles of aviation and the various forces at work in any given flight.
How Do Planes Fly: Thrust and Drag
Drop a stone into the ocean and it will sink into the deep. Chuck a stone off the side of a mountain and it will plummet as well. Sure, steel ships can float and even very heavy airplanes can fly, but to achieve flight, you have to exploit the four basic aerodynamic forces: lift, weight, thrust and drag. You can think of them as four arms holding the plane in the air, each pushing from a different direction. First, let's examine thrust and drag. Thrust, whether caused by a propeller or a jet engine, is the aerodynamic force that pushes or pulls the airplane forward through space. The opposing aerodynamic force is drag, or the friction that resists the motion of an object moving through a fluid (or immobile in a moving fluid, as occurs when you fly a kite). If you stick your hand out of a car window while moving, you'll experience a very simple demonstration of drag at work. The amount of drag that your hand creates depends on a few factors, such as the size of your hand, the speed of the car and the density of the air. If you were to slow down, you would notice that the drag on your hand would decrease. We see another example of drag reduction when we watch downhill skiers in the Olympics. Whenever they get the chance, they'll squeeze down into a tight crouch. By making themselves "smaller," they decrease the drag they create, which allows them to zip faster down the hill. Page 2 Of 3
A passenger jet always retracts its landing gear after takeoff for a similar reason: to reduce drag. Just like the downhill skier, the pilot wants to make the aircraft as small as possible. The amount of drag produced by the landing gear of a jet is so great that, at cruising speeds, the gear would be ripped right off the plane. For flight to take place, thrust must be equal to or greater than the drag. If, for any reason, the amount of drag becomes larger than the amount of thrust, the plane will slow down. If the thrust is increased so that it's greater than the drag, the plane will speed up. Next I’ll discuss weight and lift.
Every object on Earth has weight, a product of both gravity and mass. A Boeing 747-8 passenger airliner, for instance, has a maximum takeoff weight of 487.5 tons (442 metric tons), the force with which the weighty plane is drawn toward the Earth. Weight's opposing force is lift, which holds an airplane in the air. This feat is accomplished through the use of a wing, also known as an airfoil. Like drag, lift can exist only in the presence of a moving fluid. It doesn't matter if the object is...