Learning Objective In this lesson the student will be introduced to the basics of flight. Experiments involving the properties of air and how an object moves through air will be explored.

This lesson is aimed at students in grade 4 through 6 and is designed to assist educators with the curriculum on flight.

Grade Level 5 – 6

– Introduction –

The twentieth century began with mankind taking small steps to conquer the skies through heavier-than-air flight. By the middle of the century planes were breaking the sound barrier and space travel was fast becoming a reality. The airplane brought changes to society like no other technology before it, allowing people to travel the globe quickly and safely. This made the world a smaller and more interconnected place.

In this lesson we will cover the basics of flight. The lesson will start with a mention of early aviators and the rise of the airplane. Next the properties of air that make flight possible will be discussed. We will use the Sigma Rockets Basics of Flight Workbook along with our Basics of Flight Glider. The glider was designed specifically for the workbook and lesson.

Rise of the Airplane and Early Aviators

Heavier-than-air flight (airplanes) had been the dream of many throughout the centuries. As the nineteenth century came to a close, the development of the airplane was starting to be realized. Brave aviators pushed the airplane into the public sphere. Below we discuss three such aviators, each with an impact on the rise of the airplane.

Wright Brothers

Orville and Wilbur Wright were born on August 19, 1871 and April 16, 1867 respectively.

They were two of seven siblings. As children they were introduced to a toy helicopter, a gift from their father. This toy sparked their interest in aviation.

First Airplane flight (Wikipedia)

First Airplane flight (Wikipedia)

The brothers would go into the printing business together before starting a bicycle repair and sales shop. They would use proceeds from their bicycle business to fund their interest in aviation.

In 1899 they started their aviation ambitions with gliders. They even built a wind tunnel in their shop to test their designs. From gliders they moved on to powered airplanes.

Their contemporaries saw flight as a two dimensional experience not unlike how ships sail the seas. The Wright Brothers saw it as three dimensional where the plane would bank in order to turn. They designed their plane to allow control of all axises, an idea that was considered poor at the time.

On December 17, 1903 they successfully performed the first manned airplane flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Although historic, news of the successful flight was not met with much excitement by the public at the time.

In fact many did not believe that the Wright Brothers were successful with their flying machines. The brothers were called “bluffers’ by the French press.

The Wright Brothers persisted, eventually winning over governments and establishing military contracts. They would become two of the most popular people in the world.

Embroiled in patent disputes Wilbur died in 1912 of Typhoid fever. Orville would succeed his brother as president of the Wright Company but would eventually sell the company a few years later in 1915. Orville died in 1948 not only having lived from the horse and buggy era to the super sonic plane, but having been a big part of this technological transformation.

Charles Lindbergh

Charles Lindbergh was born on February 4, 1902 in Detroit, Michigan. The only child of a broken home, Charles lived with his mother up until early adulthood. He was painfully shy and withdrawn. He enrolled in engineering at the University of Wisconsin at the age of 18. He dropped out two years later to attend a school of aviation. He became a “barnstormer” stunt pilot travelling the country with other young pilots performing stunts at exhibitions.

Spirit of St. Louis

Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis
(image: Sigma Rockets)

To further his aviation training, Charles Lindbergh joined the U.S. Army, finished first in his class and became a lieutenant. For the Army he took on the St. Louis and Chicago Air Mail routes, a job that was considered very dangerous at the time.

In a customized plane, Charles Lindbergh set out to win the $25,00 Orteig prize for flying non stop from New York to Paris. His plane, named the “Spirit of St. Louis” took off from New York on May 20, 1927 and reached Paris 33.5 hours later.

He fought off fatigue as he had to stay awake for the whole flight and did not sleep the night before. He sang songs and stomped his feet to keep himself awake.

While other attempts at the prize involved more elaborate planes with crews of up to 4 people, the “Spirit of St. Louis” carried just Charles and was designed to be lightweight and efficient with its fuel consumption. He carried a rubber raft, flares and just enough food and water for the trip. He didn’t even pack a parachute as it would add too much weight.

Charles Lindbergh became an instant celebrity when his plane landed in Paris. For a shy person that did not like attention it seemed very strange to him to be so popular.

Charles Lindbergh would live to see great innovations in aviation as well as the Apollo moon landings. He died at the age of 72 in 1974.

Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart was born on July 24, 1897 in Kansas. She was an early aviator and author. She was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1932.

Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Vega 5B plane

Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Vega 5B plane
(image: Sigma Rockets)

She did so in her Lockheed Vega 5B plane which is on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. Not only would she go on to set many aviation records for female pilots, she would also set records for being the first person to fly from Hawaii to California in early 1935.

Later that same year she set records again for being the first person to fly from Los Angeles to Mexico City and then from Mexico City to Newark.

In addition to flying airplanes, Amelia Earhart spent time advocating for aviation. In 1928 she became the aviation editor for Cosmopolitan magazine after publishing her book 20 Hours, 40 Min which described her experience as a passenger on a transatlantic flight. Cosmopolitan magazine provided her with an outlet to promote the acceptance of aviation. Further, she helped to establish the first regional air shuttle service between New York and Washington (Ludington Airline) and became the Vice President of National Airways by 1930.

Her most famous and last flight was an attempt to fly around the globe. Along with navigator Fred Noonan, she took off from Miami on June 1, 1937. She flew to South America before flying to Africa.

On July 2, 1937 she took off from Papua New Guinea towards Howland Island in the Central Pacific Ocean. Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan were never heard from again.

Amelia Earhart was a trailblazer for the many ways she presented and promoted air travel.

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The Properties of Air

Understanding the properties of air is the most important concept to explore in order to understand flight. Below we look into some of these properties.

Does Air have Weight and Mass?

Empty water bottle

Empty water bottle
(image: Sigma Rockets)

Many confuse mass with weight. Mass is the amount of matter an object has. It is generally measured in grams. Weight is a measurement of the pull of gravity on an object. It is generally measured in grams as well.

One way to think of the difference is to compare your mass and weight on the moon with the Earth. Your mass would be the same on Earth and the Moon, your weight would be much less on the Moon as gravity on the Moon is far less. Does air have weight and mass?

Let’s say you have an empty water bottle. If you were to weigh it, as shown in the top picture of Figure 1, you may measure it at 22 grams.

If you were to crumple up the bottle and then weigh it again you may find something surprising. The bottle weighs less. In the bottom picture of Figure 1 the water bottle is measured at 20 grams, 2 grams less than it was before it was crumpled up. Why is that?

It is because the bottle had more air inside it than after it was crumpled. In conclusion, air does have weight.

Does air have mass? The regular pop bottle takes up more mass than a crumpled up one due to the air inside it

Air has mass as well as weight.

Is air affected by temperature?

Does temperature affect air? Ever wonder what keeps a hot air balloon afloat? It is related to how air is affected by temperature. In this video we demonstrate this concept.

Air Pressure and Lift

Lift results from moving air

Lift results from moving air

Does air have pressure? We may not notice it as air is all around us but air has pressure. When we blow up a balloon with air we are supplying the balloon with air pressure greater than the air around it. An astronaut in space or walking on the moon wears a suit filled with air pressure in order to protect them from the lack of air outside of the suit.

Air pressure is also related to the movement of air. The picture on the side is a cross section of an airplane wing. As you can see in the animation, lift is created by the lower air pressure generated by moving air over the top of the wing. It is this movement of air that allows an airplane to fly.

In our video below we explore air pressure and lift created by the movement of air.

How does a plane fly?

How is it possible that something as big and heavy as a Boeing 747 is able to fly in the sky? A Boeing 747 weighs over 400,000 kilograms and can carry over 600 passengers. From the early Wright Brothers planes to the modern passenger jet the airplane design has been consistent in its use of parts and components.

In this section we will cover the forces that affect an airplane, the parts of an airplane and how an airplane is able to fly.

Parts of a Plane

Parts of a Plane

The Parts of an Airplane

Before we can understand how an airplane flies it is important to be familiar with the parts of an airplane. In the diagram “Parts of a Plane” we can see that a plane has Wings, Fuselage, Cockpit, Engine, Horizontal Stabilizer and Vertical Stabilizer.

The Cockpit and Fuselage are the parts of the plane that carry people or cargo. Generally the Fuselage carries passengers or in the case of delivery planes, cargo. The cockpit is the part of the plane where the pilots sit to control the plane.

The Engines or Engines are used to propel the plane forward. Engines may be propellers that pull the plane forward or jet engines that push the plane.

The Wings, Vertical Stabilizer and Horizontal Stabilizer are the parts of the plane that allow it to fly.

Forces of Flight

Forces of Flight

The Forces of Flight

There are four forces that act on an airplane. Lift, Gravity, Thrust and Drag.

Lift is the force that counters the Weight or force of Gravity that acts the plane. Lift is created by the Wings on a plane. As mentioned above, Lift is generated when an object moves towards an area of low pressure.

Thrust is created by the Engines of a plane. Drag is the force that counters Thrust. Thrust must be greater than Drag in order for the plane to move forward, and generate Lift.

Ailerons and Elevators of a Plane

Ailerons, Elevators and Rudder of a Plane

Ailerons, Elevators and the Rudder

Ailerons on the Wing of an airplane move up and down resulting in a change in the amount of Lift the Wing provides. By moving the Ailerons in opposite directions, the plane will bank one way or another, allowing the pilot to turn the plane in flight.

The Rudder and Elevators at the back are also used in controlling the plane. The Elevators control the plane’s pitch or vertical rotation and therefore the angle of attack of the Wings. When the Elevators are moved up, the nose of the plane moves up as the plane is rotated along its centre. When the Elevators are moved down, the nose of the plane moves down.

The Rudder controls the yaw or horizontal rotation of the plane. The nose of the plane will move left or right depending on the position of the Rudder.

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