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Understanding Flight Dynamics

Have you ever wondered what makes planes stay in the sky for so long without falling down? Great minds like Sir Isaac Newton and Francesco Lana spent most of their lives studying the Earth and how things work so they could explain things that most people didn't have answers for. It's thanks to people like them that we can now make the world an even better place and build upon what they did for everyone. Now we can take everything they have learned and apply it to aeronautics (the science of flight) and learn even more about how planes fly and stay in the air so long. Until the day that someone becomes a wizard and can help us fly, it's good to know how these things work.

Pretty much everything around moves – humans move, animals move, plants move, and planes move. Thanks to Isaac Newton in the year 1665, he created three laws of motion that apply to everything. The first law says that if something isn't moving, then it won't start moving by itself. In turn, if it is moving then it won't stop unless something makes it stop. Second, objects move farther and faster when they're pushed harder – the harder you kick a ball the faster and further it goes. Lastly, when something is pushed in one direction, there will always be something of the same strength pushing it the opposite way.

We're covered by air at all times and there's no changing that. Even though we can't see, smell, or feel air, it's there and actually has weight and substance. We can't exactly pick up air in our hands and play with it, but it does create pressure. Air pressure is when the molecules of air move around (which is constantly!) Air is a mix of different gases like oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen, and even has the power to push and pull on things like birds, balloons, and planes.

Did someone wake up one day and say "hey this isn't just empty space?" Well, pretty much actually. In 1640 when Evangelista Torricelli was experimenting with mercury, he realized that air put pressure on it. In the late 1600s, Francesco Lana used this discovery when he drew up plans to create a ship that flies in the air by filling up hollow spheres which would be so light that it would float. Although Lana never actually tried this out, he would have attached four of these spheres to a boat-like construct so the whole thing would float up.

Torricelli and Lana were on the right track with figuring out how air works, but they weren't quite there yet. When air is hot it can expand and spread out, which makes it lighter than cold air. If a balloon is filled with hot air then it will expand the balloon and make it light, whereas cold air would just sink and fall out of the balloon.

Obviously an airplane isn't just a big balloon – it has wings and a lot of machinery that makes it work as well as it does. People put a lot of thought into how airplane wings are shaped, since the shape determines how they will work with air. The wings are shaped so that air will move faster over the top of the wing. When air moves faster, air pressure decreases, so the pressure on top is less than the pressure on the bottom. The difference between the lower and higher pressure creates a force that lifts the wings upwards.

Earlier it was mentioned that there are different things that prevent an object from constantly moving and never stopping, and that definitely happens to airplanes too. There are four different forces that tell a plane how to move: lift, drag, weight, and thrust. Lift is what works against the heavy weight of the plane and pushes it up into the air. Weight is the force that gravity creates and pulls something down towards Earth, so a higher weight means they have a stronger force of gravity pulling them down. Thrust is what pushes something forward, and this is usually done by the big engines on an airplane. Drag is the force that holds an object back from moving forward. Imagine you're trying to walk forward but your friend is holding your arm back and making you move slowly – that's drag!

Since the airplane doesn't have a mind of its own, it's up to the pilots to make sure it's going where it's supposed to go. At the front of the plane, pilots have a bunch of cool tools they use to make sure everything is working well. The throttle controls the strength of the engine; pushing the throttle makes it stronger and pulling it makes it weaker. The ailerons raise and lower the wings which determine the 'roll' of the plane. Raising the left aileron and lowering the right one will roll the plane to the left. The rudder controls the yaw (the direction) of the plane and the elevators control the pitch (going up or down) of the plane. Just like a car, a plane has brakes to slow it down when it's on the ground and ready to stop. The direction of the nose is pointed in the same direction of the rudder. Both determine where the plane is heading.

There is a good reason why planes make such loud noises when flying in the air. Sound is made up of the molecules in air that move, and when they push together they form sound waves. Sound is really fast and travels at about 750 miles per hour! When an airplane is traveling the speed of sound, the air waves move together in front of the plane to keep it going forward which causes a shockwave to form. When a plane moves faster than sound and breaks through the shockwave it spreads the noise out and creates the loud noise known as a sonic boom. Going 760 miles per hour is defined as "Mach 1," so a plane going Mach 2 is traveling twice the speed of sound. Those noises are starting to make sense now!

A tiny plane used by farmers is much slower than a space shuttle going to the moon. The different speeds of flight, known as regimes, are a different level of speed. The smaller planes used as crop dusters on farms, and even small 2-4 person passenger planes are in the 'General Aviation' regime and range from 100 to 350 MPH. Subsonic planes that go from 350-750 MPH are the common passenger and cargo jets that most people take for vacations. Supersonic airplanes range anywhere from 760 to 3500 MPH and are built with speed and low weight in mind and are common in the military. Lastly, rockets that go into orbit can go 3500-7500 miles per hour – that means up to 10 times the speed of sound. That will wake you up in the morning!

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