Why do planes fly? The physics of flying

Why do planes fly? The physics of flyingMarch 9, 2020

Why do planes fly? The physics of flying
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It has always been a dream of mankind to take off weightlessly from the ground like a bird and fly through the air. The fact that flying would one day become such a matter of course is thanks to the aviation pioneers who have gone through a hard and sacrificially rich path.


Already in the middle of the 15th century, the genius Leonardo da Vinci was concerned with the thought: “Can a person heavier than air fly”? He was the first flight visionary who scientifically studied the process of flight.

In the course of further centuries other experimenters dealt with the riddle of flying. Just to name a few of these brilliant minds: Sir George Cayley, Otto Lilienthal, Gustav Weisskopf, the Wright brothers and many others.


Little by little it was discovered that the solution is an interplay of four opposing forces, which nowadays put an airplane weighing tons into the air.

Even the heaviest passenger plane in the world, the Airbus 380, with a weight of 560 tons, climbs into the air without any problems! How is this possible?


Quite simple! It is the interaction of the four aerodynamics:


Gravity (weight)



Drag (Air resistance)


The weight of the aircraft (gravity) pulls the aircraft down and keeps it on the ground. The lift pulls the aircraft upwards and thus keeps it in the air. But only when the lift is greater than gravity, can the plane take off! The thrust force in turn brings the airplane forward and the air resistance (counter force) slows it down again. The interaction of these four forces is a highly complex knowledge and the basis of aircraft construction.


But how is it possible to make the lift greater than gravity? The wings with their curved profile are responsible for dynamic lift. Because of the shape of the wings, the air can flow faster on the curved upper side than on the straight underside. Above wings thus comes up stronger suction. And now the speed of the airplane becomes involved. The faster the speed (thrust) the more air can flow. The suction becomes greater and so does the lift.  The Swiss physicist and mathematician Daniel Bernoulli already recognized this in the 18th century. According to him this principle is also called Bernoulli’s law.


Of course, the engines play a major role in the thrust, because they provide the necessary power for high speeds. At a certain point the aircraft can overcome gravity, i.e. lift is stronger than gravity and the aircraft can take off.

So airplanes fly because there is a different air pressure above and below the wings. Air turbulence (air resistance) occurs at the wings during flight, which slows the aircraft down. The shape and surface quality of an aircraft therefore play a very important role in air resistance. The less drag has to be overcome during flight, the less kerosene has to be burned to generate thrust.


Of course, this is the simplified explanation of how lift is generated. The scientific explanation is highly mathematical, because there are still so many components that also play a role, such as: streamlines, rotation, circulation, etc.


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