How Airplanes fly

A Physical Description of Lift

Almost everyone today has flown in an airplane. Many ask the simple question 'what makes an airplane fly?' The answer one frequently gets is misleading and often just plain wrong. We hope that the answers provided here will clarify many misconceptions about lift and that you will adopt our explanation when explaining lift to others. We are going to show you that lift is easier to understand if one starts with Newton rather than Bernoulli. We will also show you that the popular explanation that most of us were taught is misleading at best and that lift is due to the wing diverting air down.

Let us start by defining three descriptions of lift commonly used in textbooks and training manuals. The first we will call the Mathematical Aerodynamics Description which is used by aeronautical engineers. This description uses complex mathematics and/or computer simulations to calculate the lift of a wing. These are design tools which are powerful for computing lift but do not lend themselves to an intuitive understanding of flight.

The second description we will call the Popular Explanation which is based on the Bernoulli principle. The primary advantage of this description is that it is easy to understand and has been taught for many years. Because of its simplicity, it is used to describe lift in most flight training manuals. The major disadvantage is that it relies on the 'principle of equal transit times' which is wrong. This description focuses on the shape of the wing and prevents one from understanding such important phenomena as inverted flight, power, ground effect, and the dependence of lift on the angle of attack of the wing.

The third description, which we are advocating here, we will call the Physical Description of lift. This description is based primarily on Newton’s laws. The physical description is useful for understanding flight, and is accessible to all who are curious. Little math is needed to yield an estimate of many phenomena associated with flight. This description gives a clear, intuitive understanding of such phenomena as the power curve, ground effect, and high-speed stalls. However, unlike the mathematical aerodynamics description, the physical description has no design or simulation capabilities.

MORE (The popular explanation of lift)

The Aviation History On-line Museum
(David Anderson,
Scott Eberhardt)

Deutscher Text

Popular explanation
Newton’s laws+lift
Wing as a pump
Air has viscosity
Wing as air “scoop”
Angle of attack
Lift requires power
Wing efficiency
Power+wing load
Wing vortices
Ground effect

© The Aviation History On-line Museum

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