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The Physics of Flight and Parachuting

How does a plane fly?

To understand how a plane flies you must understand the forces involved. Thrust this is the force that pushes (or pulls) the plane forwards. In a plane this normally comes from a jet engine or a propeller. Drag as the plane moves through the air the air exerts a push on the plane. This force is called drag and acts against the movement of the plane. Pull of the Earth on the mass of the Plane This is the force of gravity pulling the plane towards the earth. The plane has to overcome this force to be able to take off. Lift this force is created by the wings of the plane as air moves over them, the faster the plane moves the more lift is generated. RAES2009

Lift Drag Lift

How does a parachute work? Thrust

A parachute works by creating drag and so slowing a persons fall. Everything that falls accelerates due to gravity at 9.81m/s2. This means that for every second of free fall an object moves 9.81m/s faster. However gravity is not the only force acting on the object. When moving through air the air molecules obstruct the movement of the object and exert a force in the opposite direction of movement, we call this air resistance. Air resistance increases as an object moves faster, this means that as an object accelerates its acceleration decreases and eventually stops. When this happens the object has reached its terminal velocity and does not increase in speed any further. For a human being without a parachute this value is roughly 60m/s. The larger the surface area perpendicular to the direction of motion the greater the air resistance of the object. Parachutes slow a falling person down by greatly increasing their air resistance such that the person falls at a slow and safe rate. RobLandafi,2007PhilSabra,2007

Pull of the Earth

The forces acting on a parachutist Air Flow How is lift produced?

The wings generate lift only when air is moving over them. The lift is due to the special shape of the wing. This shape of the wing causes the air to flow faster over the top of the wing than the bottom. This means there is greater air pressure underneath the wing than above it causing the wing to be pushed upwards. The wing also produces an amount of drag as it resists moving through the air. If we imagine a skydiver of mass 60kg jumping out of a plane. The force pulling him towards the earth is 60 kg * 9.81 = 588.6 N (F = ma) As soon as they leave the plane there is no air resistance acting against them and they accelerate at 9.81 m/s2 Immediately their air resistance begins to increase as they gain velocity. When the resistive force is 100 N the overall force acting on the skydiver is 488.6 N and they are accelerating at 488.6 / 60 = 8.14 m/s2

Fair = 100N Fg = 588.6N Fair = 300N Fg = 588.6N


Air Pressure

The density of the air also affects drag and lift. At high altitudes the air becomes 'thinner' or less dense. This means there are less air particles per m 3. At lower densities the amount of drag is reduced as there are less particles colliding with the wing however lift is also reduced for the same reason. At lower densities you have to fly faster to produce the same amount of lift. RAES2009

As the skydiver falls faster their air resistance increases. When the resistive force is 300 N the overall force acting on the skydiver is 288.6 N and they are still accelerating but now at 288.6 N / 60 = 4.81 m/s2

Fair = 588.6N Try this!

Make two parachutes out of old plastic bags one of diameter 12cm the other 24 cm. Use a hole punch to make 4 holes evenly spaced around the edge and attach a 20g ball of plasticine to each using string. Find somewhere to drop the parachutes from. (Make sure its safe!) Have one person holding a parachute and another waiting on the floor with a stop watch. the Release the parachute and start the stopwatch and time how long it takes to reach floor. Repeat with the other parachute making sure to let go of it at the same height. Which do you think will fall the fastest? How different do you think the two times will be? What would happen if you doubled the weight of the plasticine?

Fg = 588.6N

When the resistive force reaches 588.6N it matches the force pulling the skydiver down and they will not accelerate any more. This is known as terminal velocity. 0 / 60 = 0 m/s2

Fair = 1177.2N

When the skydiver pulls their parachute their air resistance increases greatly. This gives an overall force of -588.6 N and they decelerate at -588.6 / 60 = -9.81 m/s2

Fg = 588.6N Fair = 588.6N Fg = 588.6N

As the skydiver is now slowing down their air resistance will decrease until it equals the downward force and the skydiver again reaches their terminal velocity. However this velocity is much lower and therefore safer than without the parachute. JianHuang,1998

Bibliography Jian Huang, 1998 Speed of a skydiver (Terminal velocity) [encyclopedia of scientific essays] available at <> [accessed 28/07/2011] Rob Landolfi and Phil Sabra, 2005 What is the physics involved in skydiving? [online Q&A] available at <> [accessed 28/07/2011] Royal Aeronautical Society, 2009 How does a plane fly? [online] available at <> [accessed 28/07/2011]