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Flight of an Aeroplane and the Science Behind: Which Came First?
Flight of an airplane

The flight of an aeroplane has raised the curiosity of everyone who has ever seen a plane. The gliding plane cutting through the air like a bird fulfilling the fantasy to fly high is an ingenious invention on its own. Equally inspiring is the story that went behind this ingenious invention. After all, flying an object weighing somewhat around 500 metric tons, high up in the sky, is no small feat.

Airplane history

The Wright brothers, Wilbur and Oliver, achieved the remarkable feat of inventing the first-ever flying plane, with a controlled and sustained flight. Neither of the two brothers attended college. They were two street smart boys, with a curious constructive mind. Their upbringing since childhood piqued their interest in creative creations. Their parents used to get them, scientific toy models, to play with. A small bamboo helicopter powered by a rubber band, based on the design of a French aeronautical pioneer, instilled a lifelong love for aeronautics and flying in the boys’ minds.

Flight of an Aeroplane

Dropping out of school never came in the way of their enterprising innovative minds. The brothers used to run their newspaper and even their bike shop where they made and sold their designs. Keeping up with different mechanical projects was their favourite past-time. They were always fascinated with the work of great researchers. When, they heard the news of the death of the German aviator, Otto Lilienthal, while trying to develop a glider, the brothers were shaken to the core. They realized that the world owed a great debt to Otto Lilienthal. They vowed to not let his efforts go in vain. This simple vow changed the course of history.

Unable to find answers to Otto’s glider failure, the brothers decided to start their experiment with flight. As they say, nature has all the answers, only if you look closely and listen. They observed the birds flying with their wings spread apart. This observation inspired the model of their aeroplane. The way the birds angled their wings for balance and control, gave Wright brothers their needed cue, which they could not find in any research, in any book.

In 1903, the world got its first aircraft powered by a gasoline engine, built-in their bike manufacturing unit.

The development of the aeroplane engine and the evolution of its use

The brothers invented this marvel out of their sheer passion to fly high. They did not gather any specialized education or degree course to achieve their remarkable feat. They did not intend the unfathomable uses the aeroplane was put to either.

Just 10 years after the Wright brothers gave the first plane to the world, it was used in world wars to drop bombs and erase a whole lot of populations. The rotaries were powering the fastest fighters of WWI. Excessive funding and research to develop better engines to power aeroplanes followed after this. The world went hysterical behind this invention and funds flowed like crazy. Just when Hitler came across the Jet engine design in 1939, the destructive side of the human mind got fueled further. The invention gave him the confidence to wage another war and soon World War II was ravaging the world. More and more money was hurled to keep the aeronautics research alive- from piston engines in WWI to the four times more efficient jet engines that waged WWII. Nonetheless, the aviation sector owes its success to the thrust it received during the world wars. 

explaining airplane to a child

We see that both the invention and development of aeroplane engines was carried out of passion or the sheer need to get things done. There was no preset rule, no school-taught guideline, no university education that went behind this phenomenal invention.  

Explaining airplane to a child

The physics of aeroplane flight has been explained through various scientific theories in schools. The aerodynamics of flight is sometimes explained through Bernoulli’s principle and sometimes explained through Newton’s laws. Let us have a look at them once.

The first explanation is through the ‘longer path’ or ‘equal transit theory’ explained by Bernoulli’s equations. It says that the airfoil shape of an aeroplane’s wings provides a longer path for the air molecules at the top. This means that air molecules must move faster at the top to meet the molecules at the bottom of the airfoil at the trailing edge. Now as per Bernoulli’s equation, higher velocity produces lower pressure at the top. The higher pressure at the bottom lifts the aeroplane. This explanation is sometimes refuted by saying that the assumption that the air molecules have to meet at the trailing edge is wrong in itself. The molecules travel at the same speed and never meet again.

The other attempt at explaining the lift is supported through Newton’s third law of motion. The law says that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. So the downward weight of air-mass on the wings produces an equal upward force which lifts the plane. But this theorem fails to explain the lower pressure at the top of the wings. 

These are all explanations. They are taught as theories of flight to kids. They sometimes explain and sometimes fail to completely explain the lift of an aeroplane. They, however, seldom fail to scare little school children from the subject of physics forever. These children start losing their confidence and interest to develop anything worthwhile. All their time and efforts go into understanding these complex explanations, their derivations, scoring marks on these impractical parameters and competing with others on the same parameters. The same explanations were neither used nor studied by the inventors themselves. The theory of flight came to the syllabus but the passion and grit that went behind its development were forgotten.

Both Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1726) and Daniel Bernoulli (1700-1782) did not see an aeroplane fly which was invented in 1903!

The futility of the education system

Aerodynamics engineering is a specialized degree course taught across the world. The syllabus is full of complex equations, calculus, flight mechanics, various propulsion systems, physics of flight, and turbo-machinery. Neither the students nor the teachers ever get to develop a plane for real. Their entire efforts, time, money, youth, life goes behind studying and trying to memorize plausible ‘explanations’ of how an aeroplane that is already flying, works. Is this not an irony? Is this how ‘engineering’ is supposed to be? Would we ever get to see things getting ‘engineered’ by such a system?

Every child has the spirit of the Wright brothers within. If only the spirit is not crushed by the cogwheels of the education system. Our education system, instead of polishing the spirit of innovation and creation, burdens the students under the weight of rote learning. The creativity, thoughts and even dreams, keep fading with more years of schooling. I still remember as a child, when asked in class about the ambition in life, more than half aimed for the skies, to be astronauts, pilots, players and whatnot. Today, when I see these kids as grown-ups, trapped in the systems and processes of the corporate world, the shadow of their faded dreams, is seen beneath. I can only see a transition from the rat-race of school education to the rat-race of the corporate world. Perhaps, our education system is attuned to prepare us for the clerical systems only. To be extra-ordinary, we need to learn extraordinarily, by just getting the ball rolling.

People like the Wright brothers are institutions in themselves. They do not require any educational degree or certificate to showcase their personality. Thus, there are visible trends nowadays which indicate that more and more young people seek inspirations from such people to carve a niche for themselves.


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By Richa Agarwal

A computer engineer by education, a news analyst by passion. I also make courses for UPSC aspirants and can sometime be found working at grass roots with district administration towards tribal development.

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