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How Does an Airplane Fly?: A Scientific Explanation of Flight Dynamics

Jagatheesh is a Mechanical Engineer and interested in writing on science and technology in our life.

Read on to learn how the various components of an airplane and how they are able to fly.

Read on to learn how the various components of an airplane and how they are able to fly.

Have you ever considered how an airplane flies? The solution is simple, the airfoil shape of the wing and Newton's third law of motion control the airplane's flight. Airplanes are true engineering marvels in our daily lives.

Airplanes transformed the world's transportation system. When the Wright brothers successfully tested the modern plane, they put an end to humanity's desire to fly. Our lives are inextricably linked to airplanes in some manner, and this article is all about the science behind them.

The Science Behind an Airplane

  • Airfoil (Aerofoil) Shape: An airfoil (Aerofoil) is a specialized shape that generates an aerodynamic force. The airfoil idea is used to create the aircraft wings. When an airfoil form moves at high speed, it creates a force perpendicular to the wind.
  • Bernoulli's Principle: This asserts that as velocity increases, the pressure in a fluid decreases. The pressure difference between the surface and the bottom of an airplane wing creates a lift force. It allows the plane to take off. This pressure difference is caused by the form of the airfoil.
  • Newton's Third Law of Motion: This asserts that there is an equal and opposite reaction to every action. When the wings push against the air below, an opposing force raises the plane.

The Airfoil Shape

The Angle of attack is the angle between the oncoming air and the reference line on the airplane wing.

The Angle of attack is the angle between the oncoming air and the reference line on the airplane wing.

To invent the airplane is nothing. To build one is something. But to fly is everything.

— Otto Lilienthal

The Four Principles of Flight

The airplane operates with the assistance of four forces:

  • Thrust: The force that propels the plane forward on the runway is known as thrust. Airplane engines are in charge of generating thrust. The magnitude of the thrust is determined by the engine type.
  • Drag: Drag is the force generated by air resistance. The air blows in the opposite direction of a fast-moving airplane on the runway. It produces drag, which is the polar opposite of propulsion.
  • Lift: It is the force that elevates the airplane. The wing's airfoil form creates a pressure difference. The plane is lifted upward by the pressure difference between the top and bottom of the wing.
  • Weight(Gravity): It is the weight of the airplane that pulls the plane downwards. The airplane's mass and cargo determine the magnitude of this force.

Thrust is the polar opposite of drag, whereas lift is the polar opposite of weight. Thrust must be more than drag during takeoff, and lift must be greater than weight. The forces will be balanced once the plane reaches the required altitude.

The Three Axes of Rotation of an Airplane

The aircraft moves in three different axes.

  • Pitch- This is the movement of an aircraft nose and tail up and down (Lateral axis).
  • Roll- This is the movement of aircraft wings up and down (Longitudinal axis).
  • Yaw- This is the movement of the entire aircraft sideways (Vertical axis).
The four forces must be equal in the sky for the plane.

The four forces must be equal in the sky for the plane.

Major Airplane Components That Aid in Flying

The structure of the wing and tail control the flight of an airplane. Numerous components are affixed to the wings and tail to aid flight. The following are the major components:

  1. Flaps: The high-lifting structures on the trailing edge of the wing are known as flaps. They're employed to boost the wing's camber and surface area. It will improve takeoff and landing performance at lower speeds. The asymmetry between an airfoil's two active surfaces is known as camber. The wing's top surface will be more convex.
  2. Slats: The high-lifting mechanisms on the leading edge of the wings are known as slats. During low-speed operations such as takeoff, beginning ascent, approach, and landing, they increase lift.
  3. Aileron: These are the movable pieces on the airplane wings' trailing edge. The pilot can use it to rotate the plane about its longitudinal axis.
  4. Spoilers: The little hinged plates on the top half of the wings are the spoilers. By interrupting airflow over the wings, it is utilized to increase drag and decrease lift. They serve an important role in slowing down the descent and assisting the descent. Spoilers can also create a rolling effect.
  5. Elevators: Elevators are the panels on an airplane's tail. They are in charge of the plane's horizontal axis. Elevators control the nose's position and the angle of attack of the wings.
  6. Rudder: The movable component on the trailing edge of the fin is the rudder. It is in charge of the plane's vertical axis. When one of the plane's engines dies, it takes control of the plane. The nose of the plane is controlled by the rudder.
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How Does an Airplane Fly?

When the plane moves at high speed on the runway, the wing which is in the shape of an airfoil produces downwash. It creates a pressure difference between the top and bottom of the wing. On the wing, the top surface will have a high pressure than the bottom surface. This pressure difference will lift the airplane. Flaps and slats alter the airfoil shape, thereby increasing the lift.

The Pilots can use Ailerons to alter the lift force. The elevator and rudder control the vertical and horizontal pressure. During takeoff, the elevator moves upward. It increases the tail force and makes the tail tilt. During ascent, thrust must be higher than drag, and lift must be higher than weight. When the plane reaches the required altitude, all four forces are balanced.

How Does an Airplane Change Direction?

The aileron and rudder can change the direction of the plane. A centrifugal force is essential to turn the flight. One aileron is raised, and the other is lowered, which produces a difference in lift. The difference in the lift force makes the airplane roll.

The lift force is not vertical, so the horizontal position creates the necessary centrifugal force. But the drag force in the plane will not be the same, which creates a twist called yaw. Rudders and aileron can control the yaw.

During descend, the pilot can reduce the thrust from the engine to increase the drag. Slats and flaps can also increase drag. During landing, drag will be more than thrust, and weight will be more than lift.

Airplane Connects the World

Communication and transportation technologies connect the modern world. Airplanes are an invention that changed the face of travel. With the planes no distance in longer. Cargo planes connect Washington berries to a consumer in Sydney. Airplanes made mankind's dream to fly into a reality. Let's fly more to explore more.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Jagatheesh Aruchami


Jagatheesh Aruchami (author) from Coimbatore, India on June 02, 2021:

Thank You! Eman Abdallah Kamel for reading this article.

Jagatheesh Aruchami (author) from Coimbatore, India on June 02, 2021:

Thank you! Liz Westwood, for your comment. I'm glad that this article helped you to learn about Airplane.

Eman Abdallah Kamel from Egypt on June 01, 2021:

Thank you for this informative article about Airplane.

Liz Westwood from UK on May 30, 2021:

This is a very well-presented and well-explained article. I have learnt a lot about this amazing mode of travel that we often take for granted.

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