Written by Dabney B. on Thursday, April 19th, 2012
Amid all of the incredibly high-tech, advanced aircraft in the US Air Force, it’s easy to lose sight of the basics. Flying, which was once a marvel of human ingenuity, is now something that’s taken for granted. Most Americans have flown in commercial aircraft, and none of us are surprised at all by the sight of a several ton piece of metal taking flight.
While flight may seem like a common feature of modern life, it wasn’t until the early 1900s that mankind began to harness heavier-than-air flight. Many times throughout history, inventors attempted to create flying machines — even Leonardo DaVinci tried his hand at it back in the late 1400s. It took the inquisitive minds of the Wright brothers to unravel the mystery of flight.
The answer to that scientific marvel lied in the wing or, more specifically, the airfoil. If you look at a airfoil from the side, the top half of the wing has a greater curve than the lower half. The wings or flippers of birds, aquatic creatures, and other flying animals tend to share the same characteristic.
As air passes over a wing, the uneven shape causes the air above the wing to move faster than the air below the wing. This results in low pressure above the wing, and high pressure beneath it. The pressure difference creates aerodynamic force, or lift, which pushes the aircraft upward. The angle of the wing, also known as the angle of attack, can affect how much lift the wing generates. When the lift of an aircraft (its upward force) is greater than its weight (its downward force), the plane will gain altitude.
Another set of forces, thrust and drag, are also instrumental in achieving flight. Thrust, which is achieved by propellers, jet engines, or turbines, pushes the aircraft forward. Drag, which is essentially wind resistance, resists forward motion. Drag is the reason why there are wings on the back of aircraft. These rear wings cause aircraft to have more drag in the back than the in front of aircraft. This balance between forward thrust and rear drag helps to keep the plane oriented forward.
Together, the forces of lift, weight, thrust, and drag allow for pilots to control airplanes and achieve flight. As impossible as it may seem, aerodynamic force is powerful enough to lift even the Anatov AV-225, the world’s heaviest aircraft, which can carry a maximum gross weight of 1.4 million pounds.
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