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Understanding How Airplanes Work

Understanding How Airplanes Work

Most people aren’t too concerned with how the airplane flies when they travel. They just trust that it will do its thing, and get them where they are going. While the physics of what keeps a plane in the air can get complicated, the basics are pretty simple.

The most important part of an airplane is the wing. Its unique shape is what is responsible for providing lift. The leading edge is fatter than the trailing edge, and it is flat on the bottom, with the top surface tapering downwards from front to back. This allows air to flow straight across the bottom, while forcing it up over the top of the wing, causing it to accelerate. The result is air which is lighter above the wing than below, causing it to rise.

On fixed wing aircraft, the forward motion of the plane provides the air-flow over the wings. This motion is supplied by the engines. Modern aircraft use either propeller or jet engines. Propellers work much in the same way as screws on a ship, while jets burn fuel in a combustion chamber and use a series of rotors to accelerate the air through the engine.

On helicopters, instead of engines propelling the plane forward to give air flow over the wings, they actually spin the wings (rotor blades) to provide the lift.

Getting the plane into the air is only half the story. There are three components to aircraft movement; pitch (up/down), roll (movement on the horizontal axis), and yaw (movement around the vertical axis). With nothing but wings and engines, there would be no control over what the plane did. This control is achieved with movable panels on both the wing and tail assemblies.

The tail consists of two main components, a vertical and horizontal stabilizer. Both of these use movable panels to direct air flow, and control direction of flight. The vertical stabilizer employs a rudder which controls yaw (left/right direction the fuselage is pointing), while the horizontal stabilizer has flaps to control pitch (fuselage pointing down/up).

Movable panels on the wings control roll (movement around the horizontal axis governs left/right direction). Flaps on the trailing edge and slats on the leading edge lower to give extra lift during takeoff and landing.

This, of course covers only the very basic components of how airplanes work. Jumbo passenger jets, and supersonic military craft couldn’t fly without sophisticated, computer controlled electronic flight systems. However, for small, single engine planes, there is little more to them than what has been covered here.

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