Let’s be honest with one another, neither of us really understand how airplanes fly. We weave our way through the security lines, board, eat peanuts, land, and go on our merry way without giving the wonder and science of flight too much thought. It just is. But how is it possible?
Spurred on by my 7-year-old daughter’s unending quest for knowledge, we wanted to know what actually makes a plane fly. It’s the engines, right? Well…
My family recently had the privilege of learning about the magic-but-not-really-magic of flight directly from a pair of airline pilots at a Family Forward event in Orlando, FL. There, we finally discovered what actually makes a plane fly and did a clever little experiment (that I am going to teach you below!) to help demonstrate exactly how and why airplanes are able to soar through the clouds and take us from one city to another. Spoiler Alert: It’s not all about the engines!
What You’ll Need
- beach ball (optional)
- leaf blower or hair dryer (optional)
Cut a piece of loose leaf paper into 1″ wide strips and press one strip up against your bottom lip (see my oldest daughter above). Now, blow a steady stream of air out across the top of the paper. You would think that the nothing would happen, because the paper is beneath the stream of air. You would think that the strip of paper would simply fall down and lay against your chest. But science would prove you wrong! The strip of paper will ‘fly’ like an airplane. Now, let’s understand why!
Understanding the Wonder and Science of Flight
As the pilots who were on hand to represent Southwest Airlines’s clever Adopt-a-Pilot Program explained, the real wonder of flight is the impact of the wind on the wings of a plane, or Bernoulli’s principle as it is known. Now, I don’t want to lose us both by getting to into hyperphysics here, but to know how big, heavy airplanes fly once the engines thrust them up and into the sky, you must understand the shape of a plane’s wings and the airflow being pushed above and beneath them. Because of the orientation of the wing, the simple angled shape of its design, the air on top is moving far faster than the air on the bottom and this difference in air flow causes the plane to stay in the air. This is exactly what is happening with the strip of paper! You are blowing a steady stream of air on top of the paper causing the paper to rise and be suspended straight out for as long as you can keep blowing. This is because the flow of air above it is greater than below.
The pilots went on to say that once in the air, the wings and the wind are doing most of the work, that the engines could be turned off and the plane would still be flying, and that most passengers wouldn’t notice the difference. Amazing, right? Still, the hum of those jet engines is a pretty reassuring sound to hear while 30,000 feet in the air!
Strips of paper are fun, but so are leaf blowers and beach balls! Mimic the same air flow concepts with more power and without running out of breath by tossing a beach ball into the air and by blowing more air above it than below it with either a hair dryer in the house or leaf blower out in the yard. Your kids will be amazed to see the ball levitating steadily above their heads. That is the wonder and science of flight!
Go the next level and learn much more about how airplanes take-off, land, fly.