The Aerodynamic Forces of Flight Module

MSTE logo

Partnership Illinois

  Teacher Pages
  Student Pages
  Contact Information

The Four Aerodynamic Forces

As we have seen so far, aircraft design affects how an airplane performs in the air. The four forces of flight are: lift, gravity (or weight), thrust, and drag. A pilot has to control the actions of these four forces on the aircraft. Take a look at the following figure:

As we see, an airplane flies with four primary forces: lift, weight, thrust, and drag. Airplanes are different sizes and weights. The amazing thing is that they all are able to fly. How does lift, weight, thrust and drag help an airplane to fly? For an airplane to leave the ground and fly, the lift produced by the wing must be equal to or greater than the weight of the airplane. When an airplane is flying straight and level and at a constant speed all four aerodynamic forces are equal.

Since the time of Wright Brothers (1903), we have made many improvements in airplanes. In today’s world planes fly faster, farther, and carry much more weight than the first airplanes. Can you guess how much  a 747 weights? Click here to find out!

When an airplane flies, the pilot uses a combination of climbs, dives and turns to maneuver the aircraft. On take-off the pilot throttles the engines up to full power to produce maximum thrust. Since the thrust is greater than the drag the airplane accelerates down the runway, gaining speed until he is going fast enough to fly. The pilot then begins to climb leaving the runway.

An airplane in flight is the center of a continuous tug of war between the opposing aerodynamic forces of lift versus gravity and thrust versus drag. Gravity pulls down on the plane opposing the lift created by air flowing over the wing (as shown in the figure above). Thrust is generated by the propeller and opposes drag caused by air resistance to the frontal area of the airplane. During take off, thrust must overcome drag and lift must overcome gravity before the airplane can become airborne. In level flight at constant speed, thrust exactly equals drag and lift exactly equals the pull of gravity. For landings thrust must be reduced below the level of drag and lift below the level of gravity.

-Back to Day 1 Lesson-   -Go to Day 4-5 Lesson-

A 747 can weigh over 200,000 pounds. That is the weight of about 80 large cars. How can anything that heavy stay in the air!!!