Flight: How does it work?

By Aaron Mitchell, Human Logistics


This is the question I keep coming back to.

Every time I see an airplane overhead, I have a little moment. My amazement hasn’t waned in all my years looking up.

I bet you think about it sometimes too — when you’re in a plane and it’s about to take off… and the feeling is almost one of “This shouldn’t work.” But then it does.

How does it work?

It comes down to the shape of the wing, where two main dynamics are at play:

The wing causes air (both above and below it) to be deflected downwards, producing an equal and opposite force upward.

The shape of the wing also causes air traveling over-top to move faster — and since faster moving air exerts less pressure, the relatively higher pressure below pushes upward.

Many explanations of lift, even in school textbooks, refer to only one of the above dynamics, and you’ll sometimes find people vigorously defending the one they learned and denouncing the other. In fact, both are distillations of one much bigger thing — an area of fluid dynamics governed by the Navier-Stokes equations — a field so complex that it’s fully understood by a relative few.

Just as miraculous as the physics of flight is how the industry itself works as well as it does.

Just think: At any given time, there are upwards of 10,000 planes in the sky, hurtling through the air at speeds of up to 600 miles per hour. That alone is mind-boggling, but there are so many layers of complexity on top of that that make it all the more impressive.

Consider time zones. You think they can be confusing as a passenger? Imagine criss-crossing time zones for a living. Aviation’s solution: The industry-wide use of a single time standard called UTC (Coordinated Universal Time), which allows everyone to operate off of the same clock, regardless of location. All time zones are offsets of UTC (for instance, Eastern Standard Time is UTC-5), so UTC itself is UTC±0. Pilots refer to it as Zulu (the phonetic code word for the letter Z, for zero).

This kind of elegant solution is everywhere in aviation, an industry that maybe more than any other reflects the notion that necessity is the mother of invention.

How does a Spanish pilot communicate with a Chinese air traffic controller? English. All pilots flying internationally must speak it.

How do language details get conveyed accurately? The NATO phonetic alphabet (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie…). Popularized not long after the invention of human flight, it has since been adopted in countless other fields.

In fact the procedural protocols employed in aviation are considered so effective that they continue to be adopted by other industries that have similarly thin margins for error — such as healthcare, where hospitals around the world have applied the precision of the flight deck to their daily operations with success after success.

How can a plane hold enough fuel for a 16-hour flight? A Boeing 777 burns two litres of fuel every second. It’s hard to fathom that a craft that’s trying to be as light as possible could carry enough fuel to burn it at that rate — and still have a (legally required) reserve upon landing. Amazingly, all this fuel is stored in the belly and the wings.

How can it be safe to fly over the poles? (Qantas flight 28 between Sydney and Santiago comes closest to the South Pole at 70°S latitude, and several routes fly almost directly over the North Pole.) Airplanes like the cold, enduring temperatures of -50°C at altitude even in warmer parts of the world. As for their precarious distance from civilization: Planes on polar routes are designed to be able to reach an airport even in the event that power to one engine is lost.

All of these answers really come down to precision. And that precision really comes down to people: All the people who’ve contributed throughout the magnificent 100-year history of aviation.

When I founded Human Logistics, I knew I wanted to do two things:

  1. Apply that precision to all aspects of the air charter experience.
  2. Celebrate that precision by stoking that sense of “Ya, that is amazing”. And so, we collaborated with Penguin Perspective to bring that feeling to life:
http://youtu.be/yI7igvw1dKE

Given this journey, one might think I’d be less inclined to still ask “how does flight work?” But, in all truth, I’m more in awe than ever.

-Aaron