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With Qantas Flying Non-Stop For 19 Hours, Here's A Reminder How Planes Stay In The Air

Now that Qantas has flown into the history books after completing a record 19-hour flight from New York to Sydney, aeronautical engineer Byron Wilson answers the question on everyone's lips.

Most plane passengers have looked out the window during a flight and wondered how on earth does this great hulking thing stay up here?

The short answer is engineering magic using differences in air pressure, and Newton’s Third Law, to generate enough lift to exceed the force of gravity.

One possible explanation. (Image: Macquarie University Lighthouse)

The long answer: When air flows over any flat plate at an angle, like when you hold your hand out of a car window on the highway, air is redirected down.

READ MORE: First Ultra-Long-Haul Commercial Flight Between Sydney And New York Touches Down

According to Newton’s Third Law the air pushes back up on your hand and congratulations you have lift! The higher the angle, called the angle of attack, the greater the lift (Coefficient of lift, Cl), up to a point of failure called ‘stall’ but we are talking about how planes stay up so we can ignore that.

You can fly faster (Velocity, V), to generate more lift.  And for those who would like to delve deeper into the science … How much? Exactly this much.

When air flows over any flat plate at an angle, like when you hold your hand out of a car window, air is redirected down. The air then pushes back up on  your hand, generating lift. (Image: Getty)

If you did hold your hand out the window, you quickly realise how much the air is also pushing back on your hand, this is called drag.

The trick (and it also helps to have an Aeronautical Engineering Degree), is creating the most lift with the least drag (Lift to Drag ratio), otherwise you would need lots of fuel to get anywhere, which is more weight, which means we need to fly faster, which burns fuel faster… you can start to see the circular nature of this problem.

This is where the curved profile called an airfoil comes in. These profiles are used on all wings and smoothly guides air over its upper and lower surfaces to generate lift.

Lift off: Comparison of flow over a flat plate (top image) and an airfoil (bottom image). As you can see, the blue recirculating flow -- which creates drag -- is much smaller in the airfoil profile. (Image: Macquarie University Lighthouse)

As the air close to the surface flows over the top, it accelerates (Venturi Effect) and the pressure drops (Bernoulli Effect). The free stream air above the wing then wants to equalise the pressure near the wing surface so it pushed down on the flow and ‘attaches’ the flow (Coanda Effect). If the angle gets too high, the pressure is not enough to keep it attached and we get a stalled wing.

READ MORE: Qantas Gets Closer To Marathon New York And London Flights

An airliner wing can produce around seven kilopascals of lift in level flight. That’s not much (your tyres are inflated to about 220 kilopascals) but it adds up over the entire wing surface. A Boeing 747’s wings have a surface area of about 510 square metres and can produce roughly 385 tonnes of lift.

Advancements in lift-to-drag ratio, materials and technology has now made it possible for Qantas' historic flight from New York to Sydney to stay in the air for 19 hours and 16 minutes. (Image: Getty)

Comparing the advances in the latest 787 with the 747, introduced with Pan American in 1970, the crucial Lift-to-Drag ratio has been improved from 18 to 21, a massive 15 percent reduction in drag. Coupled with advances in material science and engine performance its enough to keep the plane in the sky for anything up to 15 hours. Or as in the case of last weekend’s historic Qantas flight from New York to Sydney -- 19 hours and 16 minutes.

Now if you want to know how helicopters fly, they just beat the air into submission.

This article was first published on the Macquarie University Lighthouse.