First of all, let me make one thing clear (which perhaps hasn’t happened so far): this is not a technical manual for aviation geeks; I am not an aircraft engineer, aerodynamicist, or scientist. I have never worked for Rolls-Royce, Boeing or Airbus, and I don't eat, drink or dream of aviation. I just fly the planes.

So, if you're looking for a deep technical explanation on the theory of flight then you're going to be badly let down by reading on. That said, I will, from time to time, include the odd technical word and a splattering of mumbo-jumbo to demonstrate some credibility in my chosen profession, but don't get excited.

If, like me, you've ever stood in a field on a warm summer's day and looked up at passing aircraft, you might have been struck by one of several thoughts as determined by your proximity to the aircraft's point of departure:

The aircraft was bloody noisy (you were standing too close to the airport).

The aircraft was a bloody nuisance (you live too near the airport).

The aircraft made the earth move (you were standing on the airfield).

The aircraft really made the earth move (you were near a primary school in Afghanistan, inconveniently located close to an American airbase – and you believe the Daily Mail).

You didn't hear the aircraft but noticed its pretty white cotton wool trails contrasting artistically with the deep blue of our upper atmosphere, and you thought, oh look, that flying machine has two wings.

That's right, modern aircraft design has featured a two wing layout quite consistently for several decades. Occasionally, it may seem like an aircraft has a single wing with the fuselage (technical word for body) slung under or plonked on top of this single wing. But don't be fooled. Aircraft have two wings, one on each side, and it's to do with aerodynamic balance. But how do these planes defy gravity?

Sustained defiance of gravity by aeroplanes on Earth (as opposed to other celestial bodies, such as Mars) is most efficiently achieved by the use of these aforementioned wings. This is because Earth has an atmosphere. Mars, on the other hand, has no atmosphere, so if you were thinking of visiting our nearest neighbour for a night out, don’t bother. Book a cheap flight to Amsterdam like everyone else. So, this atmosphere then; how does it make planes fly?

A wing has two important features of its shape: a rounded leading edge which is presented to the oncoming air (unless you’re having a bad day, or you’re some sort of smart arsed aerobatics junkie), and a thin flat trailing edge at the other end.

Dissatisfied geeks can read about circulation and the Kutta condition elsewhere if in-depth science is what you’re looking for; I’m all for keeping it simple.

So, in a nutshell, the rounded (or cambered) leading edge ensures a positive aerodynamic angle of attack compared with the angle of the airflow towards the wing (in other words, the wing is at an angle to the airflow), and together with the flat trailing edge of the wing, this shape ensures the air travelling across the top of the wing travels faster than the air which splits and goes underneath the wing. I hope you’re still with me.

A popular, and seemingly plausible, explanation for the additional speed carried by the upper air stream is that it has further to travel over the curved upper wing than its mate which goes beneath. If the upper air flow wishes to be reunited with the lazy splitter below, then it must travel faster to meet up again at the trailing edge.

Well, whatever you do, don’t suggest this to a fluid dynamicist because they’ll fix you a patronising stare and start talking about the Kutta–Joukowski theorem, at which point you’d have to kill them.

The ‘equal transit time fallacy’ is a convenient layperson’s way of accepting the phenomenon of airflow around a wing, even if it’s not entirely accurate. Unfortunately the real science is mind-numbingly dull (which means it’s too complicated) so we’ll just have to leave it there.

Big deal, then, the air flows faster over the top than underneath. Well, imagine air flowing through a tube. Provided that tube isn’t shaped like a trombone, then nothing terrible will happen. The air pressure inside the tube would be constant throughout, and this has something to do with a scientific notion that energy cannot be made or destroyed, nor can it simply disappear. Scientific types call it the 'conservation of energy'.

Anyway, shove some kind of wing shaped body into this tube and, as we now accept, the air will split into two streams, with the upper stream travelling faster than the lower stream.

Faster moving air must have more energy, though; after all, faster moving air is more likely to blow your house down – particularly if you were the half-witted little piggy who made it from straw. Well, indeed it does have more energy, but those physicists and their damned laws say we can’t just go around creating energy. So we don’t. (I say we, but to be honest, I just fly the damned thing)

The Dutch born Swiss physicist, Daniel Bernoulli, showed that the total air pressure in the tube must remain the same (pesky laws of energy conservation again), and that the total pressure was made up of static pressure and dynamic pressure:

Static pressure

The pressure we don’t normally feel, but is exerted by the weight of the air above us.

Dynamic pressure

The pressure we feel when someone blows in our ear, or when the wind blows.

So it’s a simple bit of sums which shows that if you increase dynamic pressure (the air moving faster over the wing) you must lose a bit of static pressure to maintain the same total pressure. Piece of cake. And indeed this is what happens. The static pressure above the wing becomes less than the pressure below the wing, and the wing is said to generate lift; it is sucked up.

Unfortunately, it took around another one hundred years before anyone thought to apply Bernoulli’s Principle to the construction of wings for the purpose of flight. What were they doing?

Eventually, though, someone did get around to hammering together some bits of balsa wood during a school woodwork lesson and, in doing so, encouraged a generation of nutters to endure umpteen painful and often fatal years foolishly attempting to discredit Newton’s theory of gravity.

The madness continued until some bloke with a duck’s name figured out what adverse aileron yaw was.

Who needs a rudder?

Early attempts at building a controllable flying machine relied on altering wing shapes to steer the plane. If you want to turn left (or actually, in those days, it was more about trying to fly in a straight line) you would increase the lift on the right wing which would raise that wing more than the other one and cause the aircraft to roll to the left. The total lift force, being perpendicular to the wings, would now be angled diagonally to the left and would cause the aircraft to move in this direction. This is a successful way of turning a plane, or preventing a turn, and is still used today. But there’s a problem.

By increasing the lift on a wing you also increase the drag of that wing, something racing car designers are always moaning about. Their wings are intended to push the car into the ground to provide grip. But this leads to drag which slows the car down. Planes suffer the same consequence. The additional drag generated by the up-going wing slows that wing down with respect to the plane’s progress through the air. It therefore begins to lag behind the other wing. A situation now exists where the aircraft is banking one way, but yawing the opposite way. This is known as adverse aileron yaw, and moody planes don’t like that. If left unchecked this undesirable attitude will result in a spin, stall or spiral dive depending on how bad your day is. In other words, owing to the elementary controls featured on early aircraft, the pilot would find himself hurtling towards the ground with little hope of recovery. Even flying in a straight line requires regular aileron movements, and as soon as these pioneers tried to keep their wings level, adverse aileron yaw would take hold and curtail their attempts at flying with the most unforgiving consequences.

It was Orville and Wilbur Wright who figured out that adverse aileron yaw was causing these crashes and they successfully cured the problem by plonking a rudder on the back of their machine, The Wright Flyer. The result was 13 seconds of controlled flight on the day of 17th December 1903 in a little place called Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The rest is history.

The first pilot

These early attempts to cheat the great man, Newton, out of his legacy were not actually the first. Long before the curly headed boffin noticed that apples fell out of a tree, there were a few poorly thought out attempts to head off his theory before he had even been born. And I’m not talking about Icarus and his crackpot father, Daedalus.

 A 9th Century Monk called Elmer struck a claim for aviation glory around 880 AD when he leapt from the top of Malmesbury Abbey covered in feathers. He survived, but it isn’t known if he played for the Malmesbury Bell Ringers ever again. I suspect not.

Now, obviously Icarus lived about a thousand years before Elmer, but come on, the wax holding his feathers together melted when he flew too close to the Sun? I’m not sure we can believe this story, so I’ll go with Elmer and his hawk man outfit for first pilot

I know what you’re thinking: you're thinking how exciting it is when we take off – the roar of the engines, the G-force (no such thing, but that's another story) squeezing you into the seat, and the realisation that you're finally on your way to the Costa del Sol (and you've usually had a few by then). It's the best bit of the flight.

 Well, next time you're sat on a plane and the pilot opens the throttles, think of this: it's a 70 tonne Reliant Robin doing 150 mph. Worse still: it’s being steered by the pilot’s feet pushing on pedals connected to an oversized shark fin stuck on the back of the fuselage. It might as well have 'Trotters Independent Trading' scrawled down the side.

Okay, okay, I can hear some of you murmuring about my earlier comment that there is no such thing as ‘G-force’, and this is distracting you. It’s true: all this pushing and shoving of one’s body in one’s car seat when we drive around the staff car park too quickly, is not caused by ‘G-force’. I know you’re shaking your head and muttering ‘bollocks’, so I’ll attempt to explain myself and convince you never to say G-force again (did I mention that I wasn’t actually a scientist?).


Force is that which a body exerts on whatever supports it. For instance, the force that you exert on a set of bathroom scales is commonly described as weight. Possibly a lot of weight, I don’t know. Technically though it’s actually force and is measured in newtons.

You actually weigh x amount of newtons (or maybe xx newtons) and not x amount of Kilos, pounds or stones. In scientific circles it is your mass (the amount of matter you contain) which is measured in our familiar units of weight. But I digress.

The force you exert upon an object, let’s say someone’s nose, is proportional to two factors: the size of your fist (its mass measured in kg,) and the speed at which you are throwing it towards the unfortunate nose (measured in metres per second: m s-1). Owing to just such an altercation with a love rival, Isaac Newton was able to work out the following equation:


Force in newtons = Mass in Kg x Acceleration in m s-1


(m s-1 is the scientific way of expressing metres per second, commonly written as m/s, but once again it’s not a science lesson (because I’m not a scientist) so you’ll just have to believe me)

The same is true for a car which hits a lamppost after its driver decides to send a text message. The mass is the size of the car, and the acceleration is the speed at which the car is moving.

Going back to our bathroom scales, the force exerted on the scales is determined by your mass (or lack of it if you’re a Singapore Airlines air hostess) and gravity which is pulling you inexorably and unsympathetically towards the scales. Thus, gravity is acceleration and not a force.

But I concede that G-force sounds much cooler than G-acceleration, and I even heard a TV scientist calling gravity a force recently, so I’m not going to make a fuss if I haven’t convinced you (though the same scientist also reminds us that Einstein decided that gravity was a distortion in space-time so I think the use of the word 'force' is an attempt to prevent our minds blowing up).

Anyway, where were we? Oh, yes oversized three wheelers storming down thin strips of tarmac. I can just imagine the meeting where they first discussed modern airliner design:

“Right, chaps, we don't want every Tom, Dick and Harry flying our aeroplanes-”

“Ahem, Sir, most of the brave pilots who faced Jerry during the war were called Tom, Dick or Harry.”

“Don't get smart with me, Fotheringhill!”

“Yes, Sir, sorry, Sir.”

“Right then. The point is this: we don't want just anyone flying aircraft, do we? No, it should be made as fiendishly difficult as possible – like trying to race a three legged horse in the Derby. Now, these automobiles are becoming popular. You, Barrington, what's the trickiest little devil you've ever driven?”

“Well, Sir, I drove a damned temperamental little blighter with only three wheels once. A Morgan Super Sports Aero, Sir. A jolly fine car, Sir, but damned dangerous in the bends.”

“Yes, I know what you mean, ol' boy. Old Taffers had one, damned near killed him. So, three wheels it is, then. The Morgan had a single wheel at the back, if I remember correctly. Let’s put it at the front. Should liven things up a little.”

“Yes, Sir, and how about steering with the feet?”

“Ah, rather a like a soap box cart! Sterling idea, Barrington.”

And so on. Having said that, a plane doesn't have corners so we can't employ a conventional car design and put a wheel at each corner. Planes are also characteristically thin at the front end so it would be tricky fitting two wheels further than a few feet apart, particularly if you wanted to tuck them away after take-off (which we do). So designers are a bit constrained.

Off we scream, then, accelerating to around 150 mph in our giant Reliant Robin, pressing on pedals to keep the thing off the grass, and hitting all the cat's eyes (or centre line lights) with our centrally located front wheel. That's the beating noise you hear when taxiing or taking off; it's not a bandsman in the cargo hold banging away on his bass drum.

Now, a conscientious pilot might think about steering slightly right or left of the centre line, just to stop the passengers freaking out as the aircraft accelerates and the beating noise turns into drum roll. But there aren’t many such pilots left.

More entertaining, though, is if you have two closely spaced parallel wheels at the front (which is common), and you're quite skilful, you can try and sit the two wheels either side of the lights, then gain points for each one you hit. At the end of the day you tally up the points and the pilot with the fewest points wins! It keeps us amused.

Steering with the feet isn't intrinsically tricky, though. What makes it tricky is a howling gale blowing across the runway whilst you’re trying to keep the bugger straight.

You're trying to steer the aerodynamically shaped plane using a large fin sticking high into the air, whilst all the fin wants to do is push the aircraft in the direction of the wind. It's called weather-cocking, and it makes things more challenging. So if you're careering down the runway and the aircraft feels like its wallowing from side to side, then it is, and that’s why. Either that, or the pilot's got a trapped nerve in his leg.

Well, eventually you reach a point where, if something went wrong, you simply wouldn't be able to stop without crashing into the spotters (by day), or doggers (by night) who gather around the airport perimeter. But if you’ve done your take-off performance calculations correctly, and the stressy dispatcher has remembered what her job actually is, there should be enough runway left to get airborne even if an engine fails.