COSI Blog
17
April
2013

Flight: Blogging from 38,000ft

Airplane wing in flight

Since my daughter was born nearly three years ago, I haven't traveled much. So it was with a lot of excitement that I boarded a flight this morning to attend a conference in Portland, OR.

Ever since I was a kid (remember when you still got little plastic wings instead of a full body scan?) I have loved flying. At 14 I was lucky enough to take some flying lessons and I've never fallen out of love with the science of flight, nor have I lost my appreciation for the physics of it.

Lift. Thrust. Weight. Drag.
It seems so simple... just four small words. But, the mechanics of flight are nothing short of amazing.

Right now, I'm inside an aluminum frame that is capable of lifting and holding 154,500 pounds of weight up in the air while cruising at 593mph thanks to two massive high-pressure turbofans producing 49,200lbs of forward thrust.

While that's going on, air is passing very quickly around the airfoil (wing). Because of the shape of the wing, air moves faster over the top of the wing than under it. This decreases air pressure under the wing and increases air pressure on top to create lift.

Countering thrust and lift, the Earth is pulling on the plane (and in a very small way, the plan on the Earth), trying to return it to the ground at 9.81m/s squared (weight), and all that air passing around the wing is creating a lot of resistance and friction; drag.

It's such a perfectly balanced system that it's actually easy to take it all for granted. It just works.

Earth Only
The ways in which we experience this system change all the time due to new technologies... but the physical laws that govern flight haven't changed in billions of years. Amazing, right?

Even more amazing: the physics of flight that we know and love are only specific to this planet, and at this point in time! Ten billion years ago, flight on Earth probably would have been a bit different due to differences in the thickness and composition of our atmosphere.

Flying on, say, Mars is a completely different challenge. The gravity and atmosphere there are very different which makes the required balance between lift, weight, thrust, and drag very different as well. The Boeing 737-700 I'm riding on right now flies smoothly and relatively quietly on this planet. A ride in this very same plane on Mars would be a disaster.

So, I'm relaxing in a comfortable seat, perhaps slightly closer to my neighbor than I'd prefer, but comfortable all the same. I'm traveling at nearly 600mph sipping a Ginger Ale (which I only like when I fly?). I'm connected to the Internet via a satellite which allowed me to do the necessary research for this article, and am now getting ready to send this post to COSI's PR Manager for review and edit before it goes live. All from the middle of the sky.

Cheers from 38,000ft!

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