June 7, 2012

Unpacked: How Planes Fly

Welcome to Unpacked, where we demystify hot topics in the airline industry!

In this edition we take a 30,000 foot look at the physics behind how planes fly. Without understanding anything about the mechanics of planes and air travel, it’s pretty incredible to think about how a heavy machine (the plane) can be loaded with thousands of pounds (people and luggage) can take to the skies and climb more than five miles up. Perhaps even more unbelievable is that the plane is flying hundreds of miles an hour and yet you feel like you’re hardly moving.

How do we do it? It’s not magic. It’s physics!


Have you ever held your hand out of the window while driving down the street?  If you curve your hand slightly, the air seems to lift your hand up!  You can try it with a fan.

Airplanes work the same way.


Lift is produced by a lower pressure created on the upper surface of an airplane’s wing compared to the pressure on the wing’s lower surface, causing the wing to be “lifted” upward. The special shape of the airplane wing (airfoil) is designed so that air flowing over it will have to travel a greater distance faster, resulting in a lower pressure area thus lifting the wing upward. Lift is that force which opposes the force of gravity (or weight).


The nose of the plane is designed to reduce “drag,” or the resistance of the air as the plane moves through the sky.

Imagine if the nose of the plane was a block shape instead of a cone – it would put up a lot more resistance (and it would need a LOT more thrust to push forward)!


You may remember from those long-ago science classes that thrust and gravity were derivative theories of Sir Isaac Newton, one of the most influential scientists of all time (if high school is fuzzy in your memory, you may at least recall the story of the apple falling from the tree, Newton’s alleged inspiration for the formulation of his theories on the forces of gravity.


Did you know: Our Airbus A320 holds 150 customers, 2 Pilots and 3 Inflight crewmembers! The A320 can fly 2,700 miles and weighs about 170,000 lbs. The highest altitude the airplane can go to is 39,100 feet! The world’s largest airplane, the Airbus A380, weighs 560 tons – that’s almost seven Airbus A320s!


How planes fly is not rocket science! OK, it’s actually closer to rocket science than not. Engineers design aircraft that are efficient and that work with the the basic laws of physics to bring us the fastest mode of transportation in existence.

Check out our previous editions of Unpacked and stay tuned for the next up!

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