It’ll Never Get Off The Ground!

The Wright Flyer | Image by
Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental Airliner | Image by
Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental Airliner | Image by

It’s huge (250 feet 2 in. long), has a maximum weight of 987,000 pounds, and contains 63,000 gallons of a very flammable fuel. I’m going to what? Get inside, sit down, strap myself in and it will speed down the runway and actually fly thousands of feet in the air and take me far away? You bet! Thousands of people do it every day.

The description is that of a Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental commercial airliner. It’s not all that long ago that people laughed at the mention that a vehicle could be built that would actually fly and now we take it for granted.

Leonardo Da Vici's Flying Machine | Image
Leonardo Da Vici’s Flying Machine | Image by

I’d like to start with a bit of the history of flight. In about 1488 Leonardo Da Vinci developed a flying machine, “the omithopter” made of wood with a 33-foot wingspan that would make a man fly like a bird by flapping mechanical wings.

We don’t know if Leonardo actually tried to fly with his invention, but scientists feel it would never have taken off. The human powered vehicle wouldn’t be able to attain the speed needed to take off. Speculation is that it might have worked more like a hang glider if it were dropped off of a significant elevation.

The Montgolfiere brothers in France in 1783 were the pioneers of hot air ballooning. It was such a new concept that they scared the people wherever they tried to land so they carried champaign with them to placate the peasants who saw this scary thing coming at them from the sky.

Montgolfier Brothers Hot Air Balloon | Image
Montgolfier Brothers Hot Air Balloon | Image by

There is even a balloonists prayer that is said upon landing. ” The Winds have welcomed you with softness. The Sun has blessed you with his warm hands. You have flown so high, and so well, that God has joined you with laughter and sent you gently back again, into the loving arms of Mother Earth! Amen.”

Now it’s time to talk about the Wright Brothers. Wilbur and Orville Wright owned a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio and built and repaired bicycles.

Building the “Wright Flyer” was a passion they shared. Others had produced “gliders,” but the Wright’s are considered to be the first to successfully fly a motor powered flying vehicle in 1903. Since there were two brothers and only one could pilot the plane at a time they tossed a coin to see who would fly this motorized airplane into history at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Wilbur won the toss and brother Orville cheered him on for the 12 second long flight.

Airplane design became quite an industry and the biplane was the early standard.

Fokker DR1 Triplane | Image Wikipedia
Fokker DR1 Triplane | Image by Wikipedia

Herman Gerard Fokker, who incidentally in 1917 designed the Fokker triplane (three wings) made famous in WWI by “The Red Baron,” also designed the “Eindecker” which was the first monowing airplane used in World War I. Fokker developed the Machine Gun Synchronizer in only 48 hours from being given the job. The synchronizer allowed a machine gun to be fired through the rotating propeller without chewing up the propeller blades.

The Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental commercial airliner I mentioned earlier will cary 467 passengers, has a range of  8,000 nautical miles, and cruises at a speed of Mach 0.85. The question is how can something that large and heavy even get off the ground not alone gain an altitude of 30,000 ft. and fly such long distances. After all of this history of flight it’s time to see how it can happen.

You don’t really need a degree in aeronautical engineering to have a general understanding of why airplanes can fly, but I have to admit it would help. It’s basic fluid mechanics. We think of liquids as fluid, but air acts the same way as liquids.

Airplane Forces | Image Lee Dempsey/
Airplane Forces | Image by Lee Dempsey/

There are four forces at work here. The first one is weight. Everything on his planet has weight and gravity is what holds the weight down. Opposing weight is lift which is what holds the airplane up in the air. The wing is what is used as a airfoil to actually fly. Thrust is generated by the propeller or jet engine and its opposing force is drag caused by air resistance against the front of the plane. The wing acts as an airfoil due to the curvature of its upper surface. The air ends up moving faster over the top of the wing than the air that moves under the wing, thus lifting it. When a plane takes off the propeller or jet engine overcomes drag and lift overcomes weight. Landing the plane is just the opposite set of  circumstances. There has been some opposition to the theory that the curvature of the wing’s surface causes the lift. There are planes with flat wings that can also fly.

I have been fortunate enough to have flown in many types of vehicles. I have traveled in standard commercial jet planes, a helicopter ride over Niagara Falls, a hot air balloon race in Greenville, South Carolina, and a ride in an open-cockpit Stearman biplane over the city of Eugene. Not once during any of those flights did I spend even one second wondering how flight is possible or if any of those vehicles would suddenly fall from the sky. I just enjoyed the view and experienced the magical feeling of flight. I very rarely sleep in an airplane. I try to make sure I have a window seat so I can look out the window and see he billowing clouds that look like rolls of cotton unfurled and laid end to end. Sometimes I even get the feeling that I could open the door and step out onto the clouds and walk in the sky. Don’t worry I’ll never try that nor will I try to walk on water.

I hope this journey into the world of flight gives you a greater appreciation of those pioneers of the sky who had the determination and the sheer courage to be the first to venture into the sky. They, in a sense, risked it all so that we would be able to get on a jet plane and follow the Ducks all the way across the country to Virginia to watch our favorite team beat the stuffing out of Virginia.

Let me know what you would like me to talk about or explain. You can email me at: [email protected].

Tim Chuey is a Member of the American Meteorological Society and the National Weather Association and has been Awarded Seals of Approval for television weathercasting from both organizations.

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