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# Getting Airborne and Wing Design

Resource for Grades 6-12

Media Type:
Interactive

Running Time:
Size: 182.6 KB

Source: NOVA: "Battle of the X-Planes"

This resource can be found on the NOVA: "Battle of the X-Planes" Web site.

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For an airplane to get airborne or climb in flight, the overall downward force of air on its wing surfaces must be less than the upward force. In this interactive activity from the NOVAWeb site, learn how wing shape, angle of attack, and speed of the wing through the air each influence how air moves in relation to a wing. Then see how these factors in turn influence a plane's speed, maneuverability, and fuel economy.

Background Essay

To get an airplane airborne or climbing in flight, its wings must produce more lift than the total weight of the aircraft. One popular explanation for how this happens is based on Bernoulli's principle, which describes the relationship between the velocity and pressure exerted by a fluid in motion. It states that as the velocity of a fluid increases, the pressure exerted by that fluid decreases, and vice versa. For most planes, the wings, viewed in profile, are curved on top and flat on the bottom. As air -- behaving as a fluid -- passes over the wing, it has further to travel and moves faster than the air passing beneath the wing. According to Bernoulli, this creates a difference in pressure that results in a net upward force.

But that explanation may be incomplete because it doesn't state, for one thing, why air moving above and beneath a wing must meet at the wing's trailing edge. An alternative, perhaps even complementary, explanation calls on Newton's third law of motion: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The focus here is on the tilt of the wing, called its angle of attack, and its influence on airflow. It holds that as a wing is tilted upward, it generates more lift. This is because more air molecules strike the bottom surface of the wing and get deflected downward. This in turn transfers upward momentum to the wing. Thus, if the angle of attack is increased, the plane rises; if it is decreased, the plane descends.

Airfoil is a term for the cross-section of an airplane wing. While thick airfoils provide lots of lift, they also produce lots of drag, a force that tends to slow the motion of a plane through the air. For this reason, planes with thick airfoils are not well suited for high-speed or long-duration flight. Thin airfoils, by contrast, minimize drag and are both fast and fuel-efficient. Fighter jet wings are almost symmetrical, with the curve of the upper surface nearly identical to the curve of the bottom surface. This results in less lift compared with other wing profiles. To compensate, the plane has to move through the air at high speed to stay aloft.

Discussion Questions

• What are some characteristics of airplane wings that provide enough lift to keep a plane in the air?
• What is the "Coanda effect"?
• What do you notice when you try to optimize the lift to drag ratio for any of the airfoils?
• What problem did engineers need to solve to create a flying machine?
• What are some of the questions that an aeronautical engineer needs to consider when selecting or designing the airfoil shape of an aircraft's wings?

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