How Do Airplanes Fly? - Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Shelly Merrell

Shelly has a Master's of Education. Most recent professional experience is an educational diagnostician. Prior, she taught for 8 years.

In this lesson, you'll learn how airplanes fly, including what they have in common with birds and the four forces needed to get them off the ground and keep them in the air.

What Do Airplanes and Birds Have in Common?

Have you ever watched a bird fly and wondered why gravity doesn't make it fall? Have you ever wondered how heavy airplanes can stay in the air? Let's compare a bird to an airplane. Both have wide wings that taper off to more narrow ends. Both airplanes and birds have wings that are flatter on the bottom. Do you think the similarities have something to do with their ability to fly?

Bird in flight
Bird

Airplane in flight
Airplane

How Do Airplanes Fly?

Airplanes need four forces to fly. These include force, thrust, lift, and drag.

Force

A force is a push or a pull that causes an object to change speed, direction, or shape.

Thrust

Thrust is the force that propels a flying machine forward. This force is provided by the motion given by a propeller or jet engine. When an airplane moves forward into the wind, the wings cut the airflow in half. Some air travels above the wing; some air travels below the wing. Thrust is achieved when the air flows over the wings.

Lift

As we previously mentioned, plane wings are built curved on top and flat on the bottom. The wind flowing over the wing travels a different path from air traveling under the wing. The airflow under the wing helps the plane get into the air and stay there. The force that holds the aircraft in the air is called lift. Lift pushes the airplane up.

Drag

Drag is the force slowing the plane down as it pushes through the air. The tail of the plane helps create this force so the plane can easily turn or slow down. The engines have to work hard to provide thrust so the aircraft can overcome the drag trying to slow down the plane. Sometimes, when we walk outside on a really windy day, we can feel the drag as we try to walk forward against the wind.

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