how do planes

How Do Planes (and How Do Pilots)… and WHY?

Planes and Pilots

Pilots and Planes

How do planes do what they do?

How do pilots do what they do? (and why?)

(Answers to some very frequently asked questions)

How do planes turn? Why do planes bank when they turn?

Have you ever driven a car around a tight curve where the road was basically flat? You feel like you’re sliding in your seat, right? However, if the road is banked in the direction of the curve, you feel planted in your seat with none of that sliding feeling. Same for planes… the bank in the turn, along with the rudder, keeps the turn smooth and coordinated so the passengers don’t feel sideways forces (as well as satisfying the laws of physics (lift vectors… It gets technical))… ok, let’s go there:

why do planes bank how do planes turn
why do planes bank how do planes turn

On the left is straight and level flight, where the lift vector equals the weight vector. The plane is neither climbing or descending and the lifting force is equal to the weight of the plane. 

On the right is a 60 degree banked turn. Only the vertical component of the total lift is equal to the weight pulling down by gravity. The airplane’s total lift component still is formed by the lift of the wings and through the aircraft center. However, in order to maintain a constant altitude, the force (in a 60-degree bank) is twice what it is in straight and level flight. The passengers experience 2 Gs. 

The horizontal lift vector provide a force that in unopposed and continually changes the aircraft’s direction (thus a turn).

Perhaps page 3-12 of the FAA’s Airplane Flying Handbook says it best: 

The purpose of the rudder in a turn is to coordinate the turn. As lift increases, so does drag. When the pilot deflects the ailerons to bank the airplane, both lift and drag are increased on the rising wing and, simultaneously, lift and drag are decreased on the lowering wing. [Figure 3-12] This increased drag on the rising wing and decreased drag on the lowering wing results in the airplane yawing opposite to the direction of turn. To counteract this adverse yaw, rudder pressure is applied simultaneously with aileron in the desired direction of turn. This action is required to produce a coordinated turn. Coordinated flight is important to maintaining control of the airplane

Why do planes have headlights?

Airplanes have headlights to see better on the ground, be seen better in the air, and can sometimes be useful when flying in clouds. Technically the “headlights” on a plane are called either landing lights or taxi lights. Sometimes an extra set of bright lights on the front of the wings that “pulse” on and off are used for visual awareness.

The taxi lights are generally placed on the nose landing gear or wings. Two special taxi lights are called runway turnoff lights. These are angled slightly to the left and right of the nose. They make it easier for pilots to see high-speed runway exits during the landing rollout. The lights are also useful when making tight turns on taxiways.

The landing lights might be on the landing gear, near the cabin (the “wing roots”), or on the wing leading edge. They are usually built into the front of the wing, but some extend down from the bottom of the wing when turned on.

do planes have headlights?

That covers “headlights”, however, there are a bunch of other cool lights you may see on airplanes.

There are wing inspection lights, which are on the side of the airplane and point outward to light up the front of the wings to check for ice. There are also lights in the wingtip that point back to the plane and light up the top and rear of the wing. There are also lights on the rear tailfin, sometimes called “logo lights” that light up the tail. These are useful for visually spotting planes at night as well as showing off the airline’s logo! All these lights attract attention in the air and are useful for collision avoidance. 

how do planes

Why are there red, green and white lights on a plane?  

These are navigation and identification lights. If you look carefully in the picture above, you can see a trace of the taxi, landing, and red/green nav lights. The red light is on the left wingtip and the green light on the right wingtip. There is also a white light on the very back end of the airplane.

how do planes

With these lights, you can tell which direction an airplane is moving at night and which part of the airplane you’re facing. There are more red lights on a plane, too. You’ll see them on the top and/or bottom of the plane, sometimes on the top of the tail. These will be either rotating or flashing. They are anti-collision lights that flash at night and really get your attention.

Did you know?  On the ground, pilots turn these red flashing lights on before engine start and off again after engine shutdown to signify engine operation to ground personnel.

Finally, the wingtips have white, brightly flashing anti-collision lights, often called “strobes.” These can be seen for miles and you can easily spot airplanes flying high overhead at night with these lights. 

Why do planes crash?

Why Planes Crash – The Top 10 Leading Causes of Fatal General Aviation Accidents 2001-2016:

  1.   Loss of Control Inflight
  2.   Controlled Flight Into Terrain
  3.   System Component Failure – Powerplant
  4.   Fuel Related
  5.   Unknown or Undetermined
  6.   System Component Failure – Non-Powerplant
  7.   Unintended Flight In IMC
  8.   Midair Collisions
  9.   Low-Altitude Operations
  10. Other

How do helicopter pilots fly from the right seat? (… and why?)

It’s part historical and part logical. Helicopters have two primary control sticks located between and next to the pilot’s legs. One is called the “cyclic” and one the “collective.” The cyclic controls attitude and direction and is the primary flight control of the helicopter. Since helicopters are more unstable than most airplanes, pilots don’t let go of the cyclic stick very often during flight. Holding the cyclic stick is very important when hovering and requires constant input to keep the helicopter stable. Right-handed pilots prefer to keep their right hand on the cyclic because it makes it more comfortable to control. The left hand is, therefore, used for the other control stick (the collective) as well as items on the center console between the two pilots (knobs, dials, switches, etc.) Sitting in the right seat makes it more comfortable for the pilot.

That said, the pilot may also sit in the left seat depending on the mission of the flight. As mentioned, the cyclic is usually positioned between the pilot’s knees, so it can’t be shared. The collective is in the center, historically because when building the world’s first mass-produced helicopter (a Sikorsky trainer) it saved weight having only one collective lever. So a generation of military pilots grew up flying with that configuration.

In the mid-’40s, the Bell Model 47 added a second collective and it’s pretty much the standard now, so pilots can fly from either side.

Why do planes need to be pressurized?

Airplanes are pressurized to keep passengers and crew awake and safe at higher altitudes. The air at the altitudes airliners fly at is very thin, and the force it exerts on our bodies is significantly less than what we experience on the ground. Our bodies need a certain atmospheric pressure on them to function well.

Cities at higher altitudes, like Denver Colorado, are near the upper limits of what humans can enjoyably thrive in. To prevent health complications, aircraft cabins (primarily airliners) are pressurized to near what we feel at sea level.

Airliners fly at altitudes where the atmospheric pressure is less than 4 psi of pressure. At that pressure, your useful time of consciousness would be less than a minute (followed soon after by death). Federal Aviation Regulations say that pilots begin to need oxygen when they fly above 12,500 feet for more than 30 minutes in unpressurized airplanes, and passengers have to use it continuously above 15,000 feet. On modern pressurized airliners that typically operate at those altitudes and above, regulations require that passengers and crew have 10 minutes of oxygen in case the cabin pressure can’t be maintained. That’s why there are drop-down masks over each seat in an airliner.

How are airplanes pressurized? 

The pressurization in large passenger planes like modern airliners or even smaller turbine commuter planes comes from something called “bleed air” that is supplied by the turbine engine(s).  This bleed air is clean, hot air that comes from the jet engine compressor before it’s ever mixed with any exhaust gas or fuel. It’s basically just extra compressed air that is regulated and fed into the cabin to maintain the correct pressure for the current altitude.

A typical pressurization level for aircraft is eight pounds per square inch. Manufacturers build planes with a structure designed to handle the differential pressure the cabin must take to keep everyone safe and comfortable.

Why do planes use knots?

Ancient seafarers used to determine how fast their ship was moving by throwing a piece of wood over the vessel’s bow. Then they would count the time before the stern of the boat passed by the object. Later, in the 16th century, sailors started to use a different method.

They tied knots at specific distances along a rope. They then took one end of the rope with a big chip of wood attached to it and tossed it behind the ship. As the ship plowed ahead, the rope paid out freely for a certain amount of time. After that time passed, the number of knots that had gone over the stern was used in calculating speed. A knot became defined as one nautical mile per hour. If you’re traveling 20 knots, you are going 20 nautical miles per hour.

Much of airplane development, historically, mirrors seafaring. The red and green navigation lights are one example, and the use of knots is another convention that passed over to aviation.

Why do planes have seat belts?

Not so much to save your life in a big crash. However, they do help in a low-speed situation like an airplane skidding on ice or wet runway, or when the pilot has to slam on the brakes unexpectedly. Basically, though, they are there to keep you in place and away from other objects during turbulence. 

Why do pilots say Heavy?  What does a pilot mean when he says Heavy?

It’s for safety reasons to alert other planes that a “heavy” airplane (based on weight) may be producing much more powerful wingtip vortices than most planes. These vortices are like mini-tornadoes that spin off the wingtips of all planes. The heavier the plane, the more powerful they are. Adding “Heavy” to a call sign helps other pilots fly their planes in such a way as to avoid those dangers.

A “heavy” aircraft has a Max takeoff weight (MTOW) of 300,000 pounds or more. You may also hear the term “Super” added to a call sign. This is because the FAA recognizes two types of very big heavy aircraft as being extra hazardous to fly behind. They are the Ukraine-built Antonov An-225 and the Airbus A380-800.

Why do pilots say Niner?

For clarity over the radio or phone. Where people cannot see a person’s face and infer meaning from the face and lips, it is common for certain words and numbers to be misunderstood. This can be catastrophic in aviation. Any possible misunderstanding between a pilot and a controller must be minimized, so a common language makes flying much safer. These interesting pronunciations encourage the pilot and controller to enunciate clearly so that the numbers are easily understood. The reason for “Niner” is that “Nine” can be easily be confused for the number Five/Fife).

Why do pilots say Rotate?

They say this during the takeoff roll at a certain predetermined airspeed to highlight that it is time to gently pull back on the control yoke and raise the nose of the plane to flying attitude and allow for takeoff climbout. With this callout and action, the plane effectively “rotates”, pivoting somewhat around the landing gear into a nose-up attitude.

Why do pilots say Mayday?

The use of Mayday started in 1923 as an international distress call and was made official in 1948. Frederick Mockford, a senior radio officer at Croydon Airport in London, came up with the idea for “Mayday” since it sounded like “m’aider”, a French word meaning “help me.” Ships typically send a Morse Code “SOS” but planes have so much going on it’s much easier to use verbal communication. Mayday is typically repeated 3 times to make sure people understand the urgency.

Why do pilots say Roger? What does a pilot mean when he says Roger? (and Wilco)

In the very early days of flying, communication with the ground was facilitated by flares, hand signals, and paddles of different colors since there was no such thing as radio communication.

Over time, pilots started to use Morse code to communicate, and they confirmed that a message was received by signaling the letter R in the Morse code.

Later on, radio communication became available and everyone kept using the letter “R” and eventually saying “roger” for clarity. Not all pilots could speak English back then and in 1927 it was determined that “Roger” would be more easily communicated that the word “received”.

You may have also heard “Roger Wilco,” perhaps in some old war movies. This means “received and will comply” and is still in use today.

What is that little red or yellow tab with a hole on top of the wing?

There may actually be a number of small things sticking up on top of the wing. Some may look like a set of angled vanes in a row. These are call vortex generators. However, there is generally a double hook or tab with a hole in it about one-third of the way out from the door. It’s for your safety and you can see it’s purpose on every safety briefing card “in the seatback pocket in front of you.”

In case of a water landing, this item helps passengers safely exit the aircraft. Once the exit row door is opened, there is a line that can be attached from the door to the hook or tab. It is used to help steady passengers on the wing as they move to evacuation slides and/or liferafts. Equally important, it could be used to further tether a liferaft so it doesn’t get away from the plane while people board it.

how do planes
Airline Wing with Yellow Tab

Trivia: do you know where the rope is stored that attaches from the plane to the wing hook?

Hint: read the emergency instructions on the safety card. You‘ll be surprised that it’s probably been hidden in plain sight and easy reach in an emergency. Passengers really need to know this stuff, so study the card!

how do pilots

How can a plane fly with one engine?

Technically, it’s a matter of good aerodynamic design and available engine power, mixed with the atmospheric conditions at the time. A twin-engine modern airliner can fly perfectly well on one engine. In fact, it can even continue the take-off and then safely land with just one engine.

Losing an engine in flight, even for smaller piston-powered twins, is not a particularly serious problem and pilots receive a lot of detailed training to deal with that situation. During training, pilots learn about something called Vyse (the best rate of climb speed with a single operating engine.) This speed provides the most altitude gain per unit of time following an engine failure.

A Story

One day a long time ago, a 4-engine propellor airliner was crossing the ocean. About halfway across, the pilot came on the cabin speaker and said “Ladies and Gentlemen, you may have noticed our number 4 engine has stopped working. Don’t be alarmed, though. These planes can fly on 3 engines just fine. However, it’ll take another 30 minutes to reach our destination.”

The flight continued, and about an hour later the Captain came back on and said “Well, this is odd but not unsafe at all, our number 1 engine has quit as well. We’ll be fine, but it’ll take another hour longer to reach our destination.”

Two hours later the Captain announced “Ladies and Gentlemen this is highly unusual, but a third engine has quit. Thankfully, the designers built us a good airplane and we can continue all the way to our destination on one engine. Unfortunately, we’ll be landing about 4 hours behind schedule.” After a minute, one passenger was heard saying “I hope the last engine doesn’t quit or we’ll be up here all day!”

How fast do airplanes go when they take off?

It depends on the type of airplane. Most commercial planes take off at roughly 160 to 180 MPH. Smaller general aviation planes are closer to 70-80 mph. A jet fighter is more in the range of 150 – 175 mph.

How fast do airplanes go when landing?

It depends on the type of airplane. Commercial airplanes land at approximately 150 to 170 MPH. Smaller general aviation planes are closer to 70-80 mph. A jet fighter like the F-16 is more like 185 mph.

Why do planes have little fins on their wingtips? What are winglets?

More often than not these days, when you look out the window on your airline flight, you see little “fins” at the end of the wings. What are those wing fins?

what are winglets

They’re called “winglets”, and they help reduce drag, increase lift at the wingtip (smoother air across the outer upper surface of the wing), increase thrust (a small amount), and reduce dangerous wingtip vortices. That adds up to fuel efficiency, which translates to money saved for the airline or jet charter company!

They are usually tipped away from the plane and slightly angled vertically (either inward or outward). The precise design is optimized for each model.

They work by smoothing the air curling up and around from the bottom of the wing to the top. This movement of air causes a spinning motion called a “vortex.”

This cropduster is flying low and slow with a nose-up attitude, similar to a landing airplane at a high wing angle of attack to the oncoming air. You can see the powerful vortex that comes off the wingtip. Winglets help reduce those.

The vortex can cause any following airplane to roll unexpectedly, possibly causing an accident. After a short period of time, the vortices dissipate. Aircraft are spaced far enough apart by air traffic controllers so that the chances of running into a vortex is greatly reduced. Additionally, pilots are trained in ways to avoid them.

However, very large, heavy aircraft can produce much more powerful vortices, and they’re required to use the word “heavy” when they broadcast on the radio to identify this fact.

Vortex turbulence is worst during landings when low speed, high weight, and large “angle of attack” combine forces.

Winglets were conceptualized by a British engineer in the late 1800s. However, it wasn’t thought much about until the 1970s during the fuel crisis. Dr. Richard Whitcomb is given credit for modern development.

Winglets are known by many names, including canted winglet, sharklet, raked wingtip, wingtip fence, and split tip.

What Planes are Overhead?

Ever look up and wonder what plane is that overhead? Yeah, me too!

It’ easy to find out.

Counted down, here are my Top 5 favorite ways to do it:

#5 – – this moving map pulls ADSB data and displays it on a map. The other apps in this group do it the same way, but what makes this one particularly useful is the table on the right of the map. You can sort by civil and military, airline, etc. then click on a line to highlight the aircraft. The desktop version displays via this link

#4 – – enter what “planes are overhead” in the search box. Using your determined location, it will provide a table of flight, altitude, elevation, type aircraft, and slant distance. Not an elegant representation, but nicely done overall.

what plane is overhead?

#3 – – this one features an awesome moving map that allows you to see the airplanes where they are and select items like ground speed and altitude. You can also filter the display to show only planes based on origin, destination, airline, etc. 

#2 – – FlightAware is my go-to app when traveling because of its “alert me”, which tells you when the pilot has filed a flight plan, if the flight’s been canceled and more. It’s a great cross-check to the app you may already use from the airline.

Like RadarBox24, you can see flights all over the place with altitude, ground speed, etc. and you can search for flight and airports, see planned arrivals and departures, even where the plane is that’s coming in to become your flight!

what plane is overhead?

#1 – FlightRadar24 – this beauty is a desktop or smartphone app. The desktop has a lot of useful information like the others. My favorite version is the mobile app, though.  It does what the others do but in a handheld version that can take advantage of your phone’s location service permissions.

It centers on your current location with the press of an icon. You can filter the display by airport ICAO code, Airline, Aircraft, Registration, Altitude block, or Speed range.

You can even set Alerts – this is one of my favorite features. I think of an airplane squawking the “7000” codes as almost never, but if you turn on the “Radio failure” or “General emergency” toggles, you get an alert each time one fires off anywhere in the world. There are quite a few each day! Then you can “show on map” and watch the plane during that situation.


One of the best features is “AR” mode. Augmented Reality.

You see the 3rd picture above on the far right of the gallery?

See the letters AR?

When you tap those letters, a whole new world opens up. Your forward-facing camera can be pointed at an airplane you see flying around and an overlay with the aircraft picture, speed, altitude, and to/from info is displayed. By using the slider on the right, you can tweak the range it looks at, to avoid clutter.

Super fun and useful.

If you don’t see any airplanes, you’ll still be surprised because as you move the camera around, you ‘ll discover all sorts of planes beyond the line of sight or obscured by clouds. 

how do planes

What puzzles you?

Leave a comment below with something you’d like to know about planes and flying.

I’ll figure it out and post it! 

My name’s Mike and I LOVE planes!!

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