Airplanes are a method of transportation utilized by millions daily, surely the science behind it is inarguable, right? Well, the answer is actually no. Although travelling by air has become a common luxury, the truth behind why airplanes can take flight is still debated amongst scientists across the world. Even with concrete, and widely accepted mathematic evidence, providing a simple, physical explanation as to why planes can soar into the sky has proven to be a feat for engineers and physicists alike.
How Planes Fly (Simplified)
To understand what makes the airplane so complicated, it is imperative to learn the trusted basics. Many assume the engine in a plane is the main contributor to its flight, when in reality, the engines are there for speed. It is the wings that are truly responsible; specifically the air’s reaction to them. While in the air, wind passes over the wings at extremely high speeds. This wind is then guided downwards by the unique shape of an airplane’s wings. The airfoil is the most common shape of an airplane wing. It has a curved shape near the top and flattens out at the bottom. The air sent downwards by an airfoil wing creates an upward force called lift, which is what makes planes move up in the sky.
So, What’s The Problem?
The issue at hand has little to do with the mathematics surrounding flight. Generally, the numbers and equations are not a topic of debate. Now, when it comes to explaining these numbers and equations more conceptually, that’s where it gets tricky. There are two main theories behind why planes can fly: Bernoulli’s theorem, and Newton’s Third Law.
In a nutshell, Bernoulli’s theorem states that the high speed of air above an airfoil wing results in the air below the wing being slower. The gap in this theory lies in the why. Why does the higher speed atop the wing cause lower pressure at the bottom? If this is true, why can planes fly inverted even with normal airfoil wings? The theory surrounding Newton’s Third Law is a much simpler, abstract idea. The plane’s wing, regardless of shape, pushes the air below it downwards, which results in an equal and opposite force upwards, otherwise known as lift. Overall, the issue with this idea is quite similar to the issues with Bernoulli’s. Both struggle to explain why the lower pressure beneath the wing behaves as it does.
The Future of Aviation
Now that we’ve covered how planes fly, what’s next? Inventing never stops in this industry, so let’s take a look at what we can look forward to in the near (or not-so-near) future.
- Electric Propellers: A company named Zunum is working on electric propellers for aircraft. Air travel is a large producer of greenhouse gasses, and going electric would make a big impact.
- Auto-Pilot: With the demand for air travel rising by the minute, a shortage of pilots its bound to become a problem. If cars can drive themselves, why can’t planes? That’s a question engineers are working to solve.
- Speedy Travel: As passenger planes have become larger and larger, speed has been compromised in the process. Research programs are working on finding ways to transform the commercial flight experience, back to the supersonic speeds that they believe can be reached.
Even with the uncertainty when it comes to how planes fly, thousands take flight daily. A feat of engineering, the airplane is one of the most intriguing inventions in decades. The concept of being able to travel by sky was one of absurdity not a long while back. Often overlooked, the science behind airplanes represents innovation at its finest.
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