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How do Airplane Wings Actually Work

Regardless of your age, it is hard to ignore the grandeur of an airplane as it soars above you. If you are reading this article, chances are you have at some point looked at those gliding metal giants, and stopped to wonder how airplane wings really work. Despite their enormous weight, even the largest commercial airliners can fly because of the ability of their wings to generate lift.

There are a vast number of aircraft wing designs out there, but every single one relies on the same principle of aerodynamics. In essence, airplane wings work by causing air passing above and below the wing to travel at different speeds. Regardless of the overall shape, airplane wings must be rounded on the top surface, and flat below. This shape allows the air at the top of the wing to be restricted to a smaller space than that of the air below the wing, causing the air above to move faster. Think of a flowing stream, whereas the shape at the bottom of the wing is like a wide stream, the area above the wing is like a spot where the stream-bed becomes narrower. When the air (or water in this analogy) passes through those narrow spots, it speeds up. As the air speeds up, it will also drop in pressure, whereas the air below maintains a higher pressure. The higher pressure below the plane can then push the plane up with less pressure from above to resist it.

Types of Aircraft Wings

The shape of an aircraft’s wings not only affects its ability to foster lift, but also aids in its maneuverability. The following list includes a set of common wing types and their particular abilities:

Straight Rectangular Wings: These wings are the simplest to construct and they produce lift equally across their full surface. They also do not stall easily; therefore, they are used in many training aircraft like the Cessna 150, as well as on many biplanes and stunt aircraft.

Tapered Wings: Considered an upgraded version of straight rectangular wings, these wings taper inwards from the place where they connect to the body of the plane to the wing tips. This design makes planes with tapered wings much more maneuverable, allowing them to fly faster with less drag produced.

Elliptical Wings: These wings have an elliptical shape so that their wings are fully rounded. Planes with elliptical wings are extremely efficient, but not often seen as they are very complex to engineer and pilot.

Delta Wings: The larger surface area on these wings equates to greater lift, as well as more fuel-carrying capacity. They perform very well at both high and low speeds and are often constructed on aircraft used to carry heavy cargo, such as a bomber plane.

Trapezoidal Wings: Shaped like two delta wings placed back-to-back, these wings have even more surface area for greater lift. Moreover, they are tapered at the front and trailing edge for greater maneuverability.

Foldable Wings: On aircraft carriers and other confined hangars, foldable wings can come as an advantage for maximizing space and overall efficiency.

Swept-back wings: Used for nearly all commercial jet airliners, swept back wings are angled back and away from the front of the plane. This design maximizes lift and minimizes drag at high altitudes and speeds.

Forward-swept wings: Looking much like an airplane facing backwards, this wing design is very rare and used mainly for military operations. It has great maneuverability, but can also be difficult to control.

Rotary Wings: Though they look very different, helicopters use the same principles of flight in the shape of their rotating wings. These wings allow them to move up, down, left, right, and even to hover in place as they are not dependent on forward motion to fly.


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