Monday, September 12, 2011

Physics of flying (and plane crashes)

On Wednesday, September 7th, a Russian plane carrying the entire Lokomotiv Ice Hockey Team from Yaroslavl, Russia to Minsk, Belarus crashed, killing 43 out of 45 of the people on board.  Since the day of the crash, officials have been trying to discover its causes.  Logically, the plane crashed because of one of two reasons; there was either pilot error or technical error involved.

One of the most common of the technical errors that cause planes to crash is the malfunctioning of the stabilizers and flaps on the wings of the plane.  Planes stay airborne because of Bernoulli’s Principle, which states that faster moving fluids exert less pressure than slower moving fluids.  An airplane’s wing is shaped in a way that causes the air travelling over the wing to go a farther distance than that going underneath the wing in the same amount of time. This forces the air on top to move faster than the air on bottom, and therefore the air on top exerts less pressure on the wing than the air on the bottom.  The higher pressure below the wing literally pushes the plane up because the counteracting force from above is much less. This is Bernoulli’s Principle in action.

Flaps and stabilizers alter the pressure differences between the areas above and below the wing, causing the airplane to turn or go up and down.  Faulty flaps or stabilizers will cause the pilot to lose control of the plane, inevitably resulting in a crash.

Another common technical error in airplanes is engine failure. When a plane’s engine fails, it loses its forward thrust and is slowed down by intense air resistance. In order for Bernoulli’s Principle to work on an object as massive as an airplane, there must be a large speed involved.  As the plane is slowed, the air on top of the wing does not travel as fast and pressure increases.  This starts to equalize the pressure above and below the wing, and the plane starts to drop. Engine failures can be brought about by many different reasons, such as faulty wiring or poor quality fuel.

Recent reports show that the Russian plane’s stabilizers and flaps were in their proper position until impact, and its engine was running properly the whole time. This means that the plane crash was most likely the result of pilot error. - written by Rob Tardif

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