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Home > Blog > How Light Aircraft Stay In The Sky

The Science Behind Aerodynamics: How Light Aircraft Stay in the Sky

Posted 15 May 2023

How Light Aircraft Stay in the Sky

If you want to learn how aircraft fly and the role of aerodynamics in making light aircraft so efficient, then check out our informative guide below!

Aviation is truly a result of clever engineering but whether it's light aircraft or huge cargo jets, the fundamental science behind flight remains the same.

Humans have looked up to the sky and sought inspiration from birds for centuries and there is plenty of historical evidence that shows how early engineers were trying to crack the code of flight.

Today, thanks to our understanding of aerodynamics and the fundamentals of flight, we can put almost anything in the air, be it a plane or a satellite. If you want to learn how aircraft fly and the role of aerodynamics in making light aircraft so efficient, then check out our informative guide below!

The Gift of Flight

Mankind has always strived towards lofty goals, but flying was once thought to be an impossible feat – that is of course, until the golden age of science.

Over the centuries, people used to think of flying as an exclusive feature of winged animals which is why they focused on building winged exoskeleton-like structures that would work in the same way as wings. Of course, this idea didn’t take off because building a set of wings was only half the answer, the rest of the answer would come in the form of a scientific discovery.

During the 18th century, science had taken the front stage in evolving society for the better. More and more people wanted to learn about their surroundings and explain everyday phenomena using scientific methods, and of course, mathematics.

This is where Daniel Bernoulli comes in! Bernoulli was a Swiss mathematician who wanted to go beyond mere observation. He believed that the universe and all the forces within it could be quantified using mathematics.

His approach towards nature was purely based on logic, math, and statistics which led Bernoulli to come up with a set of mathematical equations explaining the underlying mechanics of various forces in the environment.

Bernoulli set his sights toward the unseen: air.

How do you mathematically define something that can’t be seen and only be felt? He thought. This question was the basis of what would later become the breakthrough that enabled mankind to evolve into what it is today.

Bernoulli wanted to quantify the seemingly unquantifiable and, to accomplish his goals, he started with the basics. Instead of going about the problem from scratch, Bernoulli relied on building upon the works of his predecessors to find a different angle that would crack the code of air.

This is when Bernoulli began to think of air as something else entirely. If you ask anyone to define air, they will usually say that air is just wind that you can feel on a breezy day. This is of course an abstract explanation of air that holds no real value when it comes to defining the characteristics and mechanics of air.

Instead of going with the traditional definition, Bernoulli deemed air to be more like a fluid than anything else. That’s right, even though we have a different definition of fluid, in fluid dynamics, air acts more like a fluid!

When Bernoulli pursued this idea further, he began to unlock the secrets behind its mechanics. He discovered that air was not stagnant and that the speed and pressure of fluid were interconnected. This led to the discovery of fluid dynamics and consequentially, paved the way for aerodynamics as well.

Aerodynamics and Flight

Once Bernoulli’s principle was established, scientists began to push the boundaries of physics as they knew it back then. They discovered that Bernoulli’s principle was highly applicable to fast-moving objects and that it could be used to finally crack the code of flight.

This is when the scientific community began to work at what would later become the basis of aerodynamics.

In simple terms, aerodynamics is a branch of mechanics that highlights the relationship between air (or gasses) and bodies while in motion. To understand this concept better, we encourage you to do a quick and easy experiment the next time you go out on a windy day. You can also perform this test while in a moving car!

When you feel a gust of wind, open your hand and face your palm toward the air. You will notice that the wind will subtly push back on your hand as it crashes around your palm. This happens due to the physical “push” of air molecules that crash and deflect off your hand while you are facing the wind.

Now, turn your hand sideways so that the wind crosses the front and back of your hand, you will immediately notice the absence of the push because now the air molecules are travelling across the sides of your hand instead of crashing onto a larger surface area, which increases resistance.

This is the basics of aerodynamics. When the palm is facing against the wind, your hand puts up a fight and provides more resistance, but when you turn your hand sideways, your hand becomes aerodynamic and offers the least resistance.

Bernoulli’s Principle – How Aircraft Stay in the Sky

There is another important and interesting feature of Bernoulli’s principle that defines the relationship between pressure and the movement of air.

Bernoulli discovered that fast-moving air created a pressure difference. For example, if the air was moving above a surface, then there would also be a pressure drop that would be correlated to how fast the air is travelling.

Here’s another quick and easy experiment to help you understand how this principle works.

Take a small ribbon-like piece of paper and hold it in a way that it limps away from you. Now bring the paper near your mouth and blow over it. You will immediately notice the paper rise.

You may be wondering how this happens, after all, you are blowing air above the paper, but it still manages to lift from below! This is a prime example of Bernoulli’s principle in action! When you blow air, the air travels at a faster speed above the paper which creates a pressure drop.

The bottom, however, remains stagnant as there is no air flowing beneath the paper. Air at rest has a higher pressure than moving air, which is why the air pressure at the bottom can overcome the pressure above and lift the paper!

You can apply this fundamental understanding to aircraft as well. However, merely understanding air isn’t enough! You also need to build an efficient and aerodynamic wing system to take advantage of this principle.

Back in the day, people understood that any aircraft would require wind or displacement if it was to achieve flight, but no one really knew how to design an efficient wing system that could not only achieve flight but also enable control.

Luckily, there were a couple of engineers who were keen on solving this problem.

Wright Brothers and Light Aircraft

Armed with a rudimentary but sufficient knowledge of aerodynamics and the mechanics of flight, scientists and engineers started working on aircraft designs that could sustain flight. The results were terrible at first since our understanding of science hadn’t caught up with the materials, tools, or techniques available at the time.

The designs were viable, but we lacked the means to efficiently craft them – but fortunately, instead of waiting for tomorrow, engineers started to use clever techniques to make different wing designs that could achieve flight using rigid wing systems.

Many people think of the Wright brothers as the first people to invent flight, but this is not true! Their breakthrough was the result of a joint effort that spanned all the way back to Bernoulli, and even further!

The Wright brothers were just the first people to put all the concepts together and build toward a viable aircraft design. They achieved this by following in the shoes of their predecessors: they began from basics.

The brothers didn’t just want to achieve flight, but they also wanted control. After all, what good is flying when you can’t choose where you go?

Before the Wright brothers, many unmanned aircraft designs were even successful in taking off. However, there were three asterisks to these test flights.

  1. The first was that the aircraft was always tied to an anchor so that the aircraft couldn’t go off on its own.
  2. The second was that the aircraft was unmanned,
  3. The third was that the aircraft only achieved flight for a few seconds before crashing – as you can imagine, all these points are not conducive to aviation.

This is why the Wright brothers wanted to do it right and truly achieve sustainable flight. They started with a simple kite design. They closely observed how the kite flew and its movement with respect to the changes in the air.

The brothers understood that they not only needed to build a light aircraft, but they also had to design a wing system that would offer the least resistance to air. Thus, the fixed-wing system was born!

Fixed-Wing Flight and the Breakthrough Engine

The fixed-wing design offered the least air resistance and with the help of ailerons, the longitudinal axis of the aircraft could be controlled. So, the brothers had finally solved the problem of flight, but there was another component that made it all possible: the engine.

The work on engines was already independently progressing in parallel with aircraft designs but at the time no one knew both of these discoveries would collide in an extremely ground-breaking way.

Before any mechanised engine, humans relied on animals to provide the power required to turn machinery, but all of this changed with the invention of the steam engine. The steam engine worked in a simple way: fuel was heated to create steam. The steam would then be used to turn a turbine that would, as a result, turn a series of gears to produce mechanical power.

Steam engines were at the heart of trains and other machinery that required a lot of mechanical power but in the case of aircraft, engineers had to take a completely different approach. The thing about steam engines is that they tend to be very large, and they aren’t highly efficient either. You also need a steady supply of fuel to create the required steam to make the engine work.

As you can imagine, installing a steam engine on a light aircraft wouldn’t work for many reasons. This is why engineers opted to reinvent the engine. After decades of research and work, the first combustible engine was created. This engine was relatively lighter, compact, and efficient – and it also happened to be perfect for aircraft.

As we mentioned above, the Wright brothers are touted to be the first people to fly, but the reality is that they were also two people at the right place and at the right time. The invention of the combustible engine couldn’t have been timelier!

The brothers wanted to use this engine design for their aircraft as they believed that it would fit well with the overall design of the aircraft and would be light enough to sustain flight.

After a few design iterations, the Wright brothers were finally ready to reveal their first flight-ready aircraft – and in 1903, the brothers took off with their aircraft and changed the world forever.

Modern Light Aircraft

Modern aviation is truly a marvel and is expected to continue to evolve with more discoveries and with the help of efficient designs. Light aircraft continue to be the best way to fly for both enthusiasts and pilots who want to train for more serious roles in aviation.

Even today, light aircraft follow the same basic design cues that were present in 1903, however, these designs are understandably much more efficient, safer, and effective. If you want to learn how to fly, then you will have to learn on any of the various types of light aircraft.

The two most famous types of light aircraft are fixed-wing and flex-wing aircraft. Fixed-wing aircraft are designed to be miniature versions of larger aircraft while flex-wing aircraft and usually one or two-seaters with a fabric-based wing system.

These aircraft have their pros and cons, but both are essential in learning how to fly. This is why we highly recommend that you pick a flight school that offers a wide variety of aircraft that you can train on!


Sherburn Aero Club, which has been operational since 1964, is the ideal place for most of your training and flying needs. It is one of the largest flying clubs in the North of England and also one of the largest in the country.

For those who wish to experience the thrill of a flight for fun or to help fuel their aviation dreams, Sherburn offers experience flights for the newbie, as well as the veteran in various types of light aircraft.

The flight experience option is also available for people who wish to take to the skies for special occasions, even if they aren’t into aviation in the long run.

If you wish to begin your career in aviation or wish to take to the skies as a hobby, Sherburn’s flight training school offers private and commercial licences, along with pilot medicals to ensure a smooth journey going forward.

With a large fleet of new aircraft and an airfield refurbishment with new runways, hangars, and an extended clubhouse, we cater to brand-new flyers who have just started their journey to the skies, as well as seasoned flyers who have been operating aircraft for decades.

Sherburn offers a dedicated day-long Flight Radiotelephony Operator’s Licence (FRTOL) course for those wishing to get the certification, running the first Sunday of every month.

In addition to that, if you are looking for a hangarage for your own aircraft, need servicing or repairs, want to buy a new aircraft or aviation equipment, or are just looking to enjoy and watch the aircraft, Sherburn Aero Club is the place to be.

Call us at 01977 682 674​​​, email us at flightdesk@sherburnaeroclub.com, or message us via our online contact form for more information on light aircraft, training requirements, licencing procedures, as well as experience flights and pilot training at Sherburn.

Photo by Daniel Eledut on Unsplash 



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