In this article we’re going to cover flying basics; how airplanes fly and the basic parts of an airplane.
They say that the flying is the easy part.
Once you start diving into the books and studying aerodynamics, you’ll quickly realize what they mean. But there’s good news: flight instructors have been doing this for a long time and have several tricks up their sleeves. One of those tricks is the building blocks method of teaching.
Put simply, it means that you don’t need to learn everything all at once. Instead, start by learning a few foundational pieces of information about the plane and flying, and then slowly build your structure of deeper knowledge on top of that foundation.
To that end, here is an introductory look at some of those foundational pieces–a collection of terms you’ll learn much more about during flight training. But to start, here are some quick definitions and explanations of the basic parts of an airplane, forces of flight, and pilot flight controls to give you the very basics of flight.
Parts of an Airplane
To start things off in our flying basics guide let’s talk about parts of the airplane. One of the first steps in learning to fly and work around airplanes, in general, is to knock out some vocabulary.
The main body of the plane is called the fuselage. This is where the cockpit, passenger cabin, and luggage compartment are. On a single-engine airplane, the engine is usually mounted to the front of the fuselage. The wings and other components are also attached to it.
The wings generate lift, so they’re pretty important. The wings also contain the aircraft’s fuel tanks. There are also a few flight controls–ailerons and flaps–mounted to their trailing edges. On multi-engine airplanes, the engines are mounted to the wing on attachments called nacelles.
Small aircraft are roughly divided into high-wing and low-wing models. High wings, like Cessnas, have their wings mounted to the upper fuselage above the passenger’s heads. On the other hand, low wings like Pipers have the wing-mounted below you. Beyond aesthetics, there’s not as much difference between the two as you might think.
When you learn more about aerodynamics, you’ll learn more about the different shapes of wings and their unique advantages and disadvantages.
Most people refer to the empennage as the “tail” of the airplane. It has vertical and horizontal stabilizers that look like the feathers on an arrow. And, in the most basic sense, they do the same job as arrow feathers- keeping the aircraft pointed straight ahead.
The trailing edge of those stabilizers each has a moveable flight control surface. On the trailing edge of the horizontal stabilizer, there is an elevator. On the vertical stabilizer, there is a rudder.
“Landing gear” is the pilot name for the wheels–but there’s more to it than that. The landing gear provides maneuverability on the ground, braking, and, most importantly, is designed to absorb impacts from less-than-perfect touchdowns. So the term landing gear encompasses the wheels, struts, steering mechanisms, and brake system.
Landing gear might be fixed or retractable. Retractable gear reduces drag when flying at speed but is complicated and expensive. Streamlined fairings often cover fixed gear to reduce drag.
The powerplant is part of the airplane that provides thrust. On most small planes, this is a reciprocating gasoline engine connected to a propeller. Larger aircraft may have turboprop engines with propellers or turbofan engines like airliners and corporate aircraft.
Four Forces of Flight
When you do crack open a book to learn the basics of flight one of the first things you’ll go over is the four forces of flight.
There’s much to learn about aerodynamics and what it takes to get an airplane off the ground. But the first step is to master the four forces of flight: lift, weight, thrust, and drag. Everything you need to know will come back to these four basic concepts.
Lift is generated by the wings when air flows over them. It pulls the aircraft up and away from the earth, acting opposite weight. If the plane is not climbing or descending, lift is equal to the force of weight.
A pilot must be able to control the amount of lift that the wings make. There are three ways to make more lift from the wings–each of which you’ll learn more about going forward. One way is to simply fly faster–the more air that passes over the wing, the more lift is made. Another way is to raise the nose, which pilots call increasing the angle of attack. Finally, in some cases, the wing shape can be changed to make more lift. This is how flaps work. They’re used to enable an airplane to make more lift at slower airspeeds–handy when you’re coming in to land.
Weight is the force that pulls the aircraft downward, often thought of as gravity. The aircraft’s weight is affected by how much load it carries–and it has limits. Therefore, you must ensure the aircraft is not overloaded before every flight by calculating your actual takeoff weight.
The force of weight acting on a plane is not constant. Sometimes, other forces are added to it so that the actual load on the plane is greater than just the calculated weight. Load factor measures how much the load increases in a given maneuver. Turns are the most common maneuver that increases load factor–in a 60-degree bank turn, the plane will feel twice as heavy as it does in straight and level flight. That means it needs to make twice as much lift as it does in straight and level flight.
Thrust is the forward motion created by the powerplant. Adding power increases thrust, and reducing power takes it away.
Thurst is used to counter drag. Drag is an aerodynamic force that holds the airplane back and resists forward motion. It comes from two places.
Parasite drag comes from air flowing over the airplane. Some planes have more drag than others, but some is inevitable. The faster you go, the more air flows over the airplane, and the more drag is produced. For example, if you double your airspeed, the plane makes four times as much drag.
Induced drag is made by the wings when they make lift. It’s not possible to make lift without it, but it is worst at slow airspeeds.
So, when the plane goes very slowly, it makes a lot of induced drag. When it is going fast, it is making a lot of parasite drag. Both situations require more power from the engine to maintain a constant airspeed. If drag increases, but thrust does not, the aircraft will slow down.
There’s much more to say about lift, weight, thrust, and drag, but these descriptions provide a starting point for your studies.
One of the most critical components for new pilots learning flying basics is how to control the airplane.
The pilot’s controls in the cockpit are connected to flight control surfaces on the wings and empennage. In the case of training airplanes, they’re connected via simple mechanisms of pullies and cables. When the pilot turns or pushes/pulls the controls, the cables make a part of the wing or tail deflect air in one way or another, causing the aircraft to move in a specific direction during flight.
Primary Flight Controls
Primary controls are necessary for flight–they maneuver the plane around one of the three main movements a pilot needs. They are:
Nose up and down–Pitch
One wing up, the other down–Roll
Nose left and right–Yaw
The elevator controls pitch. The elevator is mounted on the back of the empennage. The elevator moves up and down when the pilot moves the control yoke or stick forward or back (“Pull up!”).
The ailerons control roll. There are two–one on each wing–, and they are linked together. When one aileron goes up, the other goes down. The pilot controls roll by turning the yoke or stick left or right.
The rudder controls yaw, which moves the nose of the airplane left or right. The rudder is mounted on the trailing edge of the vertical stabilizer. Foot pedals control it–push the left pedal, and the rudder deflects to the left.
Secondary Flight Controls
A secondary flight control isn’t critical for flight, but it helps the pilot control the plane in some way. The more complicated an aircraft, the more secondary flight controls it might have. Most training planes only have two: flaps and trim tabs.
Flaps are mounted on the inboard section of the back of the wings. They extend down together in increments. As they go down, they change the shape of the wing slightly so that it might make more lift at lower airspeeds. But, of course, they also make more drag as they do it.
There are several different designs of flaps, so they don’t all look or work the same way. Large aircraft sometimes even have leading-edge flaps on the forward side of the wing.
Flaps are controlled by a small lever in the cockpit. Most planes have an electric motorized system that extends the flaps when the switch is moved. A few planes, like the Piper Archer, have manual flaps extended with a parking brake-looking lever between the pilot seats.
Trim systems are designed to make flying easier for the pilot. Since the amount of pitch necessary to maintain and climb, descent, or straight-and-level flight always changes due to thrust, speed, loading, and atmospheric conditions, the trim allows the pilot to neutralize the control force.
That way, they don’t get a tired arm from pressing or pulling on the controls all the time.
It works by moving a small tab on the elevator’s trailing edge. When the tab is moved, the elevator forces change so that the pilot does not have to do it manually with their arms. The trim is changed using a wheel in the cockpit, usually mounted near the pilot’s hand.
Some planes also have electric trim systems activated with a thumb switch on the yoke or stick.
More about flying basics can be found in the FAA’s Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, Chapters 4 and 6.
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