Four Forces On a Airplane
A force may be thought of as a push or
pull in a specific direction. A force is a vector quantity so a force has both a
magnitude and a direction. When describing forces, we have to specify both the
magnitude and the direction. This slide shows the forces that act on an airplane
Weight is a force that is always directed toward the center of the earth. The
magnitude of the weight depends on the mass of all the airplane parts, plus the
amount of fuel, plus any payload on board (people, baggage, freight, etc.). The
weight is distributed throughout the airplane. But we can often think of it as
collected and acting through a single point called the center of gravity. In
flight, the airplane rotates about the center of gravity.
Flying encompasses two major problems; overcoming the weight of an object by
some opposing force, and controlling the object in flight. Both of these
problems are related to the object's weight and the location of the center of
gravity. During a flight, an airplane's weight constantly changes as the
aircraft consumes fuel. The distribution of the weight and the center of gravity
also changes. So the pilot must constantly adjust the controls to keep the
airplane balanced, or trimmed.
To overcome the weight force, airplanes generate an opposing force called lift.
Lift is generated by the motion of the airplane through the air and is an
aerodynamic force. "Aero" stands for the air, and "dynamic" denotes motion. Lift
is directed perpendicular to the flight direction. The magnitude of the lift
depends on several factors including the shape, size, and velocity of the
aircraft. As with weight, each part of the aircraft contributes to the aircraft
lift force. Most of the lift is generated by the wings. Aircraft lift acts
through a single point called the center of pressure. The center of pressure is
defined just like the center of gravity, but using the pressure distribution
around the body instead of the weight distribution.
The distribution of lift around the aircraft is important for solving the
control problem. Aerodynamic surfaces are used to control the aircraft in roll,
pitch, and yaw.
As the airplane moves through the air, there is another aerodynamic force
present. The air resists the motion of the aircraft and the resistance force is
called drag. Drag is directed along and opposed to the flight direction. Like
lift, there are many factors that affect the magnitude of the drag force
including the shape of the aircraft, the "stickiness" of the air, and the
velocity of the aircraft. Like lift, we collect all of the individual
components' drags and combine them into a single aircraft drag magnitude. And
like lift, drag acts through the aircraft center of pressure.
To overcome drag, airplanes use a propulsion system to generate a force called
thrust. The direction of the thrust force depends on how the engines are
attached to the aircraft. In the figure shown above, two turbine engines are
located under the wings, parallel to the body, with thrust acting along the body
centerline. On some aircraft, such as the Harrier, the thrust direction can be
varied to help the airplane take off in a very short distance. The magnitude of
the thrust depends on many factors associated with the propulsion system
including the type of engine, the number of engines, and the throttle setting.
For jet engines, it is often confusing to remember that aircraft thrust is a
reaction to the hot gas rushing out of the nozzle. The hot gas goes out the
back, but the thrust pushes towards the front. Action <--> reaction is explained
by Newton's Third Law of Motion.
The motion of the airplane through the air depends on the relative strength and
direction of the forces shown above. If the forces are balanced, the aircraft
cruises at constant velocity. If the forces are unbalanced, the aircraft
accelerates in the direction of the largest force.
Note that the job of the engine is just to overcome the drag of the airplane,
not to lift the airplane. A 1 million pound airliner has 4 engines that produce
a grand total of 200,000 of thrust. The wings are doing the lifting, not the
engines. In fact, there are some aircraft, called gliders that have no engines
at all, but fly just fine. Some external source of power has to be applied to
initiate the motion necessary for the wings to produce lift. But during flight,
the weight is opposed by both lift and drag. Paper airplanes are the most
obvious example, but there are many kinds of gliders. Some gliders are piloted
and are towed aloft by a powered aircraft, then cut free to glide for long
distances before landing. During reentry and landing, the Space Shuttle is a
glider; the rocket engines are used only to loft the Shuttle into space.