Flight: Top 10 Questions

December 2011

Thanks to Frank Lester, education coordinator of the Aeronautics Division, Idaho Transportation Department; and Lori MacNichol-Gregory, pilot and certified flight instructor, McCall Mountain/Canyon Flying Semin for the answers.

1: Why does a bird have to flap its wings to take off?

Birds don't have an engine. So, they need their wings to create both lift and thrust. They flap their long, long wings and this creates a pressure underneath. This pressure is the thrust and lift factor lifting the bird into the air and moving them forward. (From Jacob in Mrs. Woodall's class at Dalton Elementary School in Dalton Gardens)

2: Why can't a plane fly into space?

A plane can't fly into space because there is no air. Planes use their wings with air to give them lift. In space, there is no air to produce lift, so you have to have excessive amounts of thrust. Thrust is produced by engines once outside the atmosphere. It's the thrust that keeps a craft airborne. (From Katie in Mrs. Hudson's class at Dalton Elementary School in Dalton Gardens)

3: What causes a sonic boom?

When an aircraft goes beyond the speed of sound, we hear a big boom. It actually goes through a sound barrier and makes a big, loud boom. The speed of sound is around 760 miles an hour. (From Morgan in Mrs. Woodall's class at Dalton Elementary School in Dalton Gardens)

4: Will science ever be good enough to make flying cars?

It is! They are making them now! The first flying car was invented back in the 50's and was called the "aerocar." Today, they are pretty successful in getting up in the air and landing. However, they do need to make some changes in order to get certified by the FAA and meet auto standards for the road. (From Lily in Mrs. Hudson's class at Dalton Elementary School in Dalton Gardens)

5: How do heavy airplanes fly in mid-air?

The heaviest airplane in the world is around one million pounds. Heavier airplanes need larger wings because they need more surface area to generate the lift, and they need larger engines to generate the thrust. (From Braelynn in Mrs. Schweitzer's class at Riverside Elementary School in Boise)

6: When did the Wright brothers fly their first aircraft?

Their first powered flight was December 17, 1903. They were probably flying gliders several years before that. (From Ryan in Mrs. Schweitzer's class at Riverside Elementary School in Boise)

7: What is a thermal made of?

A thermal is a lifting of air. It can be created by many different things. One of the most common things would be the sun shining on a surface. This creates heat and transpires into a type of thermal or lifting of air. The air rises because as you heat something, the air expands. (From Colton in Mrs. Woodall's class at Dalton Elementary School in Dalton Gardens)

8: What is the most efficient and least expensive way to become a pilot?

It depends on how much time you can devote to it. Your chances of completing your certificate are much greater if you can devote one full month to learning how to fly versus spreading it out over a year. Set aside the right amount of time and then that will help reduce the cost somewhat. (From Keegan in Meridian)

9: What does it look like flying a plane?

It's just amazing. You take off and watch the airport, neighborhoods and trees getting smaller. It's wonderful to experience the three axes of flight; pitch, roll and yaw. When you are in a car you have two axes, but when you fly, you are working in three dimensions. (From Gabe in Mrs. Hunt's class at Cynthia Mann Elementary School in Boise)

10: How is thrust made?

It's basically the air being forced behind the aircraft and this pushes the craft forward. A single engine airplane has a propeller that rotates, creating lift in the horizontal. We call this thrust. A jet engine takes the air and sucks it into the engine squeezing it down. As the air is squeezed, it heats up. Fuel is then pumped into the engine and an explosion occurs forcing the air out the back of the engine. This creates the thrust that pushes the plane forward. (From Jacob in Mrs. Woodall's class at Dalton Elementary School in Dalton Gardens)

September 2007

Thanks to Frank Lester, Education Coordinator for the Aeronautics division of the Idaho Transportation Department and Lori MacNichol, pilot and flight school owner in McCall for the answers.

1: How high can an airplane travel?

If you stop and think about it, the space shuttle is actually an airplane until it leaves the atmosphere, at which time it becomes a rocket. So, an airplane can fly to the top of the atmosphere, which is probably in the vicinity of 24 to 25 miles, maybe higher. Most passenger flights, however, are limited to 50,000 feet. The newer aircraft will go as high as maybe 45,000 feet. (From Brett in Mrs. Schweitzer's class at Riverside Elementary in Boise)

2: How do wings support an aircraft and aid in flying?

When the wing travels through the air, the top of the wing is a little bit higher and the bottom of the wing is flatter. So when the leading edge of the wing hits the air, the air travels faster across the top of the wing than the air traveling along on the bottom of the wing. That difference creates lift. But you have to have more than just lift to fly; you also have to have thrust. So, the motor on the front is turning and the propellers attached create thrust, which moves the aircraft down the runway. Then the air strikes the leading edge of the wings causing the Bernoulli effect creating lift. (From Colton in Mrs. Rice's class at Mill Creek Elementary in Middleton)

3: How do they design airplanes?

That's a complex question. There is a huge amount to it. They are looking for how much weight the plane will have to carry, the shape of the wing and what the purpose or utility of the aircraft will be. Lori flies a Super Cub. It has a tail wheel instead of nose gear because the plane is designed to land on rough strips. So her plane is not designed to go fast but is designed to generate a lot of lift and land on rough surfaces. You wouldn't land a 747 or 737 on one of those airstrips. (From Edisa in Mrs. Hunt's class at Cynthia Mann Elementary in Boise)

4: How does a jet turbine engine work?

You have four phases in a turbine. The air is drawn into the turbine where it is compressed. The compressed air is heated up. Then there is an igniter phase. Fuel is pumped into the engine and mixed with the compressed air. The mixture is ignited resulting in a minor explosion contained within the turbine. Finally, the air is blown out the back to create thrust. And according to Newton's third law, you have an equal and opposite reaction to the thrust going out the back which causes the aircraft to go forward. Very simple. "Suck, squeeze, bang, and blow" is what we call it. That's how a turbine works. (From Shawn in Caldwell)

5: Is it possible for a human to fly flapping wings?

Not exactly. In 1997, there was a human powered aircraft called the Gossamer Condor. It was basically a flying wing with a gondola underneath for the pilot. It was built of lightweight plastics. It didn't flap, but soared like a bird. Primarily though, most aircrafts' wings cannot flap. Airplanes just weigh too much. Birds use their muscles to move their wings for lift. Aircraft need engines. (From Hugo in Mrs. Schweitzer's class at Riverside Elementary in Boise)

6: How can an airplane fly without feathers?

An airplane can fly without feathers because it has its own covering called the skin. Airplane's skin is usually made of fabric or aluminum. It provides a surface area that air can flow over, just like wind flows over the feathers on a bird's wing. (From Emily in Mrs. Hunt's class at Cynthia Mann Elementary)

7: How many people can fit on a plane?

Well, that depends upon the kind of airplane. On some planes I fly, two people are the maximum number. Sometimes I can fly an airplane that will seat up to 16. There's even a small jet airplane that seats one person. On the other end, the new Airbus 380 holds 500 to 600 people. It's huge. (From Aubrey in Nampa)

8: How old is the oldest airplane?

First there were hot air balloons. Those go back to the 1700's in France. There were also gliders and the like early on. But the Wright brothers developed the first motorized airplane that flew for more than just a few feet. It was developed just over a hundred years ago. But the French had a lot to do with what we do with aircraft, how they are designed and how they perform. There are many parts of the aircraft that are French words. (From Hannah in Mrs. Hunt's class at Cynthia Mann Elementary)

9: What is the stuff that comes out of the back of a jet?

It is called a vapor trail. Jet aircraft, any aircraft really, produce an exhaust from its engines, just like a car. This byproduct contains water and it is very hot when it comes out of the back of the engine. Well, it is very cold at that altitude and the water condenses and forms a fog. So as a pilot flies along, you see the vapor trail behind the aircraft. (From Alex in Post Falls)

10: How does wind impact how you fly a plane?

It depends on the size of the airplane. If it is a small airplane and the wind blows on the side of the craft, then, the airplane will actually need to fly what appears to be a crooked or crabbed flight path to compensate for drift. So to track a straight line, we must then crab the aircraft in order to get to our destination. We are most conscious of the wind when we land. Because airplanes cannot land sideways, we have to compensate for wind by adjusting the way the aircraft is flying. We adjust the power, the yoke, and the wing so that the aircraft actually is in what we call a slipping motion down to the runway. So you have to watch out for wind. (From Chavawn in Dietrich)

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