Mechanics of Flight


  • Challenge of Flight

    Examine the forces that act on an airplane in flight, the motions a pilot controls, and the design process engineers use to develop airplanes that manage these flight conditions, in this interactive produced by WGBH and The Documentary Group. The first part of the interactive uses videos, still images, and diagrams to explain the four forces of flight (lift, thrust, drag, and weight) and the three motions an airplane experiences in flight (roll, pitch, and yaw). The second part explores the four primary steps of the design process and the tools today’s aerospace engineers use in their work. This resource is part of the Aerospace Engineering collection.

    Grades: 7-12
  • Higher and Faster

    Explore the social and economic factors as well as the engineering innovations that have driven—and continue to drive—both higher and faster commercial flight, in this interactive produced by WGBH and The Documentary Group. The first part of the interactive focuses on high-altitude flight. Using diagrams, infographics, and still images, it describes the benefits of flying higher with respect to safety, comfort, and fuel efficiency. It also explains the technological breakthroughs, namely in cabin pressurization and jet propulsion, that have enabled higher flight. The second part focuses on faster flight and, in particular, the challenges in aerodynamics, propulsion, and materials that manufacturers face as they seek to deliver new generations of high-speed passenger airplanes capable of supersonic (and even hypersonic!) flight. This resource is part of the Aerospace Engineering collection.

    Grades: 7-12
  • hd video

    Engineer Profile: Simon Bahr

    Simon Bahr, an engineer at The Boeing Company, explains lift, the force that keeps a plane in the air, and describes the safety testing that planes go through before they are allowed to fly, in this video from WGBH and The Documentary Group. Bahr relates lift to the sensation you feel when you stick a hand out the window of a moving car and demonstrates how lift works using a paper airplane. Next, he details the exhaustive testing planes go through, including the “ultimate load test” of the wing, in which a wing is subjected to 1.5 times the force it will ever experience in flight to prove its strength. Bahr then describes the work at Boeing’s lightning lab, where engineers simulate lightning strikes and learn to safely channel their electrical energy through a plane. This resource is part of the Aerospace Engineering collection.

    Grades: 6-12
  • hd video

    Engineer Profile: Dylon Rockwell

    Dylon Rockwell, an engineer at The Boeing Company, explains airfoils on airplane wings and helicopter rotor blades and describes the V-22, a vehicle that can fly as an airplane or a helicopter, in this video from WGBH and The Documentary Group. As a child, Rockwell was attracted to things that flew. With the positive influence of his uncle, a pilot, he grew up thinking that he could do anything. Rockwell worked on the V-22 program, which has revolutionized search-and-rescue operations to help save lives. He believes that you don’t have to be a genius to be an engineer—you just need the curiosity to figure out how things work. This resource is part of the Aerospace Engineering collection.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Design Innovation for Jet-Powered Flight: The Swept Wing

    Discover the origins of the swept wing and podded engine design, two technologies that helped engineers harness the speed potential of jet engines, in this video from WGBH and The Documentary Group. Today, most jetliners share a common design: wings that sweep back from the body of the plane, with engines mounted beneath them. This design dates back to the end of World War II, when Allied military forces discovered secret German research that had been meant to be destroyed. Swept wings delay the formation of shock waves at higher speeds, and podded engines suspended below the wings help bring wing vibration under control. Together, these technologies enabled stable flight at speeds twice as fast as those that propeller engines had previously generated. This resource is part of the Aerospace Engineering Collection.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Engineer a Jetliner

    Experience the engineering design process as an aerospace engineer assigned to design and test an airplane, in this interactive produced by WGBH and The Documentary Group. Your challenge is to determine which wing and engine configuration is best suited to each of four missions (the defined needs or objectives for the airplane). The first three missions ask you to find airworthy, low-cost, and fuel-efficient designs. The fourth invites you to define your own objective. Consider a range of different wing and engine design solutions—each one rated for build cost, fuel burn, and weight—and choose a configuration to test. Then, depending on your results, refine the design and test again, or move on to the next mission. This resource is part of the Aerospace Engineering Collection.

    Grades: 6-12

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