9. In Plain Air (I)

It is said no-one fully understands how a plane is able to stay in the sky.

I once sat in a classroom at the end of a school day. My backside was numb and my legs tingled from a lack of movement. Sunlight, filtered through blinds already half-drawn in preparation for the final bell, drooped over benches filled with students in heavy felt blazers. Near the front of the class a teacher droned on about the relationship between thrust, gravity, lift and drag, occasionally turning to a poorly sketched diagram of a plane cut with arrows representing each force. As he spoke my eyes drifted to one of the many threads of dust hanging lazily in the late day sun, and I absently wondered how the same natural laws the teacher described worked to keep it afloat.

That was my intial experience of aviation physics, and I would imagine this is as much as most people ever learn. However, I have since spoken to a number of engineers who tell me that these forces alone don’t explain how a plane is able to stay airborne.

Anyone who has seen a plane land knows exactly what I mean: it drifts so casually to earth it makes the sky seem viscous, thick and able to support its massive bulk. As effortlessly as a whale plunging through fathoms of water it yaws belly up, and only betrays its true mass when its wheels bounce and groan as they touch the runway. Until this moment movement is guided gently from underneath and free of the the familiar rules that bind us to our clumsy terrestrial sphere.

The plane that hit the ground before me followed this pattern. It approached through the cloudless sky as gracefully as a bumblebee, until its left wing clipped the hillside and broke the spell.

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