How airplanes work.

There are at two parts to this lesson. Part one is about lift (it includes Bernoulli’s Principle). Part two is about the actual functioning of the planes.

Part 1: Lift.

Lift is the name given to the force that pushes up on an object in the air. In order for an airplane to take off, the lift must be more than the gravitational pull down. There also must be more thrust (motion forward) than drag (force pushing against the plane).

Lift is created by the airfoil. The airfoil is the shape of the wings – and the plane in general. The top of the airfoil is curved. This curve forces the air on the top to move faster than the air on the bottom: It will cover more distance (the curve is longer than the line from point to point) in the same amount of time. By moving faster, the air lessens the pressure on top of the airfoil (the pressure pushing down). That allows the pressure pushing up to be greater, and push the object up. This is the basic definition of lift.

For a more scientific definition of Bernoulli’s Principle, visit this website.

For an animation of how Bernoulli’s Principle works, click here. 

For experiments to do at home to explain lift, click here.

What we did: We pulled out our little planes again. I applied pressure down, and Nicholas applied pressure under the wings. When I lessened the pressure, he was able to lift the plane up – and that demonstrates how lift works with air pressure.

Part 2: Actual control of the plane.

Planes can be controlled in more ways than cars. Cars can go fast and slow, forwards and backwards, and left and right. Planes can do all of that (except backwards), and also go up and down, roll, and spin. The terms for these are roll, yaw, and pitch. For video demonstrations of what roll, yaw, and pitch are, click here.

After we saw the videos of roll, yaw, and pitch, we pulled out our planes (we have a few of the Matchbox planes in various shapes and sizes – we also have a F-22 Raptor which is Nicholas’ favorite plane).  Then we had them go through the motions of the roll, yaw, and pitch. We used the correct terms to describe what we were doing.

Finally, we sat down with our cockpit, our planes, and the computer. We looked at some videos to see how ailerons produce rolls, the rudder makes the plane yaw, and the nose makes the plane pitch. Then we used our planes and said things like, “I’m pushing the nose of the plane down, so we are going which direction?” We used all our normal terminology and talked about not only how the plane moved, but what parts of the plane we were moving to get it to move.

Finally, we’re done.

We finished with writing our words for the day: yaw, pitch, roll, aileron, rudder, nose, and lift.

I made out a few worksheets that have pictures of all of this, and the worded explanations I used. If you would like them, please email me and I’d be happy to send them to you since they won’t fit on the website:)

Happy plane day!


My favorite website for all things flight related is right here: have all kinds of explanations, examples, websites, and activities. If you are more interested, go visit them and see all their fabulous things.

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