Aeronautics is the science of aircraft and anything that travels through the air. Overcoming the force of gravity to soar through the sky was a dream of people throughout human history. Ever since the first flight of the Wright Brothers plane in 1903, we have been fixated on the idea of creating faster and more powerful aircraft. Aeronautical engineers must consider aerodynamics, the various forces that are simultaneously on aircraft as well as how to propel and steer the aircraft through the air. There are various ways in which aeronautic science can be used such as aircraft development, unmanned planes and drones, military technology, and rockets. Aeronautical engineering is incredibly complex, but the basic principles are relatively easy to understand. This article is the ultimate beginner’s guide to aeronautics.
Aerodynamics is the science of airflow, and how aircraft and other solid objects interact with air as they move through it. Understanding aerodynamics is vital in aeronautics, and aeronautical engineers are always looking at new ways to make their designs more aerodynamic. Early aircraft like the Wright Brothers Flyer was not very aerodynamic at all, which hugely limited their potential velocity and maneuverability. In comparison, the aircraft being designed today are so aerodynamic that they can reach some incredible velocities.
The Sound Barrier
Airflow below the Speed of Sound (770mph) is called subsonic airflow, and airflow above the Speed of Sound is called supersonic airflow. Most aircraft and all helicopters are subsonic but aeronautical engineers first broke the Sound Barrier in 1947 when a Bell X-1 aircraft reached Mach 1, the term given to the Speed of Sound. Since then, aeronautical engineers have designed many aircraft capable of going far beyond the speed of the Bell X-1. Aircraft that travel faster than the Speed of Sound is called supersonic. The fastest plane on record today is the North American X-15 which reached Mach 6.7 which is around 4,500mph. If you look at the design of the North American X-15, it is incredibly aerodynamic, especially when compared with early aircraft like the Wright Brothers Flyer.
The majority of aircraft to have broken the Sound Barrier have been military aircraft. The biggest advances in aeronautics tend to come in military technology and you can click here to learn about one military aircraft with some amazing design features. Military fighter jets are the fastest and most agile of all aircraft and the advances that have been made since the Spitfires and Messerschmitts of WWII are truly amazing. Aeronautical engineering is very expensive and so the countries with the biggest military budgets have the best aircraft and other aeronautical technology, which are specially designed to cut through the air as easily as possible to help them reach the highest possible speeds and levels of maneuverability.
The Forces of Aeronautics
Every object that is traveling through the air has 2 sets of opposing forces acting on it and it is the relative strength of these forces that dictate its flight capabilities. The first set of forces are gravity and lift. Gravity is the force that attracts objects towards the earth. It is the force that makes things fall to the floor when we drop them. The opposing force is called lift and for any object to stay in the air, it’s a force of lift must be stronger than the pull of gravity. Lift is created by the wings of an aircraft which are specially designed to affect the way that air moves over them. It is quite complex, but essentially the shape of an aircraft’s wing creates an airflow situation in which the strength of the pressure pushing down on the wings is lower than the pressure pushing up.
The other set of forces that are acting on an aircraft are thrust and drag. Thrust is the name given to the force that propels an object forwards. Thrust is generated by the propulsion engine in the aircraft and the fastest aircraft have incredibly powerful propulsion engines. The opposing force to thrust is a drag, which is created by air resistance. Drag works similar to friction and resists the forward movement of the aircraft. To move forward, the force of thrust must be stronger than the drag. Modern aircraft are designed to reduce the force of drag with super aerodynamic designs.
Aeronautics is an incredibly complicated branch of research and development, but it has changed our world. Engineers working in the field of aeronautics are constantly looking at ways to move aircraft onto another level. The developments that we have witnessed since the Wright Brothers first took flight have been nothing short of miraculous and the technology that is being mooted in the future is real Science Fiction stuff.