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How do airplanes actually fly? - Raymond Adkins

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By 1917, Albert Einstein had explained the relationship between space and time. But, that year, he designed a flawed airplane wing. His attempt was based on an incomplete theory of how flight works. Indeed, insufficient and inaccurate explanations still circulate today. So, where did Einstein go wrong? And how exactly do planes fly? Raymond Adkins explains the concept of aerodynamic lift.

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TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Raymond Adkins
  • Director Michael Kalopaidis, Zedem Media
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Storyboard Artist Jeanne Bornet
  • Animator Rebecca Stylianou
  • Art Director Jeanne Bornet
  • Sound Designer Andreas Trachonitis
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Producer Anna Bechtol
  • Associate Producer Abdallah Ewis
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Editorial Producer Cella Wright
  • Script Editor Alex Gendler
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Many descriptions of lift fall short by relying on a one-way cause-and-effect explanation. Really, lift should be thought of as a set of interactions that occur together at the same time. As the air flows around the wing, the pressure field deforms the flow, while at the same time the air’s motion creates the pressure difference. Similarly, the pressure field produces a lifting force on the wing, and the wing reacts by pushing back on the air, producing the pressure field. Together, these produce and sustain the lift force.

The details of the pressure and airflow depend on the exact shape of the wing. However, there are general features that are true for any wing design. For example, wings are designed to be angled upward, to direct the airflow downward, and produce lift. The angle of the wing with the incoming air is known as the “angle of attack” and is a key concept in flight, controlling the amount of lift. Devices, like flaps, are also added to airplane wings to helps increase this angle of attack when landing or taking off. 

To learn more about the details of the airflow around the wing, watch this video, or read this article. To understand more about devices used to create lift, see this article

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About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Raymond Adkins
  • Director Michael Kalopaidis, Zedem Media
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Storyboard Artist Jeanne Bornet
  • Animator Rebecca Stylianou
  • Art Director Jeanne Bornet
  • Sound Designer Andreas Trachonitis
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Producer Anna Bechtol
  • Associate Producer Abdallah Ewis
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Editorial Producer Cella Wright
  • Script Editor Alex Gendler

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