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Articles: Airplane Shape and Flight

Airplanes are made of materials that are hard, strong, and lightweight. The first airplanes were made from fabric and wood that were light but strong. Later, they were built with lightweight sheet metal. Today, airplanes are built from a mix of metals and other materials such as plastics, which provide strength without being very heavy.

Airplanes have to be very strong to fly when the four forces of flight—weight, lift, thrust and drag—are at work. They must be hard so that each part stays in the right place while the aircraft is flying. Airplanes can be made harder and stronger by using heavier material. However, airplanes that are too heavy cannot carry as much cargo or as many passengers. So, airplane designers need to make airplanes strong but also as light as possible so they will fly.

There are five main parts on an airplane. These are: the main body, the wings, the tail, the engines, and the landing gear. The main body is also known as the fuselage.

Aircraft diagrams pointing out cockpit, fuselage, tail section, engine, wings, and landing gear.

Just like a racecar, the fuselage of an airplane is designed to be sleek and smooth so it can move easily through the air. The fuselage usually has a sharp or rounded nose with a long thin body that lets the air flow smoothly around it.

The wings are the part of the airplane that produce lift and help the plane take off and fly. Since most wings on an airplane are big, the inside of the wing is designed to carry the fuel that the airplane needs to fly. The outside shape of the airplane is the most important part for flight. Airplanes fly better if the top of the wing is curved. Long, skinny wings help the airplane make lots of lift and fly farther. Short, wide wings can carry more weight but need more help from the engine’s thrust to create lift.

Airplanes take off better when they are heading into the wind. Once the airplane is racing down the runway, all the pilot has to do is lift the front of the airplane up. This tilts the wing, causes even more lift, and the airplane takes off.

Airplane designers also have to think about how fast the airplane needs to be able to fly. If an airplane flies faster than its designer planned, the stress from the four forces may break it apart.

 FirstGov  NASA
Editor: Brian Day
NASA Official: Liza Coe
Last Updated: September 2005
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