WBBM Newsradio/Mike Krauser

The Science Behind Planes: Flying, Design Elements, Sonic Booms, & More

August 17, 2018 - 1:13 pm

CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- As you watch the planes in the air show, you may not think about what makes them do the things they do, so WBBM Newsradio went to an expert.

Standing beneath historic planes suspended from the ceiling of the Museum of Science and Industry, Dr. Olivia Castellini, a physicist, and Senior Exhibit Developer, talked with WBBM Newsradio about the V formation, sonic booms, flying backwards and design elements that allow some planes to do crazy things.

Castellini pointed out a plane called “The Jenny,” a World War II-era bi-plane that was among the first to aerobatic maneuvers for the public and the first airplane that many Americans saw in action.

Castellini told us there is some controversy regarding the V formation that you often see in air shows. 

“It is very well understood where birds, particularly geese, fly in the V formation, and they do that because they will draft off of each other.  Now, with airplanes there’s a little bit of debate over whether or not that same physics directly applies because the big difference is with the planes, the wing is fixed," she said.

She noted that planes like airliners, for example, have very wide wing spans, which gives them stability.  However, many planes in the air show are much smaller and have very short wing spans.  That, she said, makes them less stable, but very maneuverable. 

WBBM Newsradio/Mike Krauser

Regarding planes that actually fly in reverse, she said, it’s all a matter of thinking in reverse for the pilots.  The controls, she said, have to be thought of in opposite terms.  Up is now down, she said, and the pilots have to flip that in their minds.   

On the subject of sonic booms, Castellini said it would be awesome to experience that at the air show, but it would also shatter the windows of the high rises. 

However, she said, the cool thing about sonic booms, which occur when a plane reaches the speed of sound, is that you actually hear two booms when they occur; one as the nose of the plane breaks through air molecules pressed up against the nose of the plane and a second as the tail passes through.