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How Does an Aircraft Fly?

We know airplanes provide a valuable service, transporting us to faraway destinations in hours instead of days, but have you ever thought about how these marvels of engineering work? Considering that an airplane weighs thousands of pounds and carries thousands more in passengers and cargo, it’s pretty incredible. Here’s how it happens:

A Simple Matter of Aerodynamics – That’s Complex

You’ve likely encountered the term “aerodynamics” before – people might use it to describe race cars or anything else that travels fast. Aerodynamics is how external forces move an object through the air. An aircraft wing has two sides: a rounder, curved edge on top, and a sharper lower edge. The air that travels around the upper edge has to move a greater distance to move around the wing than the lower edge. In other words, the airspeed on the upper edge must be faster than the air under the wing. This is one of the principles responsible for an airplane’s flight.

Air Flow

Next, consider airflow, as this is how a plane flies. An airplane actually hangs in the air because of the pressure difference between the upper, rounded edge of the wing and the lower half. Air flow on the top and underneath the wing causes a pressure differential that allows lift.

Propulsion

Finally, planes need a way to continue the pressure differential that allows them to travel. This is where the principle of propulsion comes into the equation. Engines force the plane forward, causing the craft’s wings to pass through the air, creating the pressure differential necessary to fly for as long as we need it.  Flying an airplane is a delicate balance between forward propulsion from the engine, wind resistance, the upward lift from pressure, and an aircraft’s weight. Keeping this balance is key to moving through the air quickly and safely.

What Happens If an Engine Dies?

Modern aircraft have many backup mechanisms and checks, so it’s rare that an engine would die mid-flight. Even if this were to occur, airplanes are still capable of gliding over great distances. In fact, the process of landing involves removing propulsion, which is tantamount to flying without an engine. An aircraft landing takes about 20 minutes, during which time an aircraft can travel 120 miles.

Steering

How does an aircraft make it to its destination? If you have a window seat near the wing, you’ll see a lot of interesting stuff happening. The moving parts control speed, lift, direction, and everything we need to get passengers to arrive at their destination safely. The way these moving parts interact with outside forces creates the mechanisms we need to steer an aircraft to where we need it.

You might not think about it often, but airplanes are truly marvels of modern engineering. By leveraging natural forces around us, we can actually shave days off of travel time and get to anywhere in the world in a matter of hours. It is an invention that has revolutionized the way we get around the globe.

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