X-48B Blended Wing Body aircraft during test flight

Aeronautics is the study of the science of flight. Aeronautics is the method of designing an airplane or other flying machine. There are four basic areas that aeronautical engineers must understand in order to be able to design planes.

  • Aerodynamics – the study of how air flows around the airplane. By studying the way air flows around the plane the engineers can define the shape of the plane. The wings, the tail, and the main body or fuselage of the plane all affect the way the air will move around the plane.
  • Propulsion – the study of how to design an engine that will provide the thrust that is needed for a plane to take off and fly through the air. The engine provides the power for the airplane. The study of propulsion is what leads the the engineers determine the right kind of engine and the right amount of power that a plane will need
  • Materials and Structures -the study of what materials are to be used on the plane and in the engine and how those materials make the plane strong enough to fly effectively. The choice of materials that are used to make the fuselage wings, tail and engine will affect the strength and stability of the plane. Many airplane materials are now made out of composites, materials that are stronger than most metals and are lightweight.
  • Stability and Control – the study of how to control the speed, direction, altitude and other conditions that affect how a plane flies. The engineers’ design the controls that are needed in order to fly and instruments are provided for the pilot in the cockpit of the plane. The pilot uses these instruments to control the stability of the plane during flight.

History-making flights

  • Chuck Yeager’s sound barrier busting Bell X-1
  • Fastest Manned Aircraft Flight – 3 October, 1967. Edwards Air Force Base, Mojave Desert, California. Air Force test pilot William J. “Pete” Knight with X-15 aircraft number 56-6671. It flew at nearly Mach 7, seven times the speed of sound and twice the speed of a rifle bullet. It flew so high its pilots earned Air Force astronaut wings: 280,500 feet or 53.1 miles above the earth. It pioneered technologies that were used on the SR-71 Blackbird, the space shuttle and the reusable spacecraft in Richard Branson’s future Virgin Galactic passenger space program.

What’s the problem?
Flight dynamics is the science of aircraft and spacecraft design. The final product frequently cost hundreds of millions of dollars to design and build.

  • Ask – How can designs be evaluated and refined without the expense of building the final product? What are some of the flight characteristics that need to be tested? How can these be simulated using existing technology?
  • Imagine – A Wind tunnel is used to study the influence of wind on moving bodies. How good are these tests at predicting the actual performance of the final product? What elements can be substituted for actual flight testing? The structure creates a near similar wind conditions as prevalent in nature when bodies move at high velocity. For this purpose, scaled down models of automobiles or aircraft are kept inside the tunnel and high velocity airstreams are created.
  • Design, Build – The forces acting on the model are analyzed using suitable force measuring devices. As the design is being refined, how are these tools being used to ensure that the final product meets the design requirements?
  • Improve – Such measurements help in refining the body design. These are complex projects and the design and testing cycle is repeated until the final design is set.

That’s engineering

  • Aerodynamics – topics included are: Newton’s basic equations of motion; the motion of a free falling object, that neglects the effects of aerodynamics; the terminal velocity of a falling object subject to both weight and air resistance; the three forces (lift, drag, and weight) that act on a glider; and finally, the four forces that act on a powered airplane. Because aerodynamics involves both the motion of the object and the reaction of the air, there are several pages devoted to basic gas properties and how those properties change through the atmosphere.

Engineering ideas

  • control, speed, direction, altitude, stability, composites, materials, metals, thrust, power, air flow

Do it
Here are some challenges for you to work on…

  • Spinning blimp – simple experiment with paper and scissors to study aerodynamics of the basic design
  • Hoopsters – another simple project with tape, plastic straws and paper to make flying objects in the shape of hoops
  • explore the NASA sites for aeronautical projects. These are the “X” projects and are in various stages of design, development and testing
  • Ring wing glider – easy, uses a single sheet of 8.5×11″ paper – demonstrates that a “wing” doesn’t need to be flat to be effective

News, updates

  • NASA Aeronautics News – frequent updates, information, images and video about NASA Aeronautics projects

Learn more…

  • Robo Raven – robotic bird, whose wings flap completely independently of each other, and also can be programmed to perform any desired motion, enabling the bird to perform aerobatic maneuvers. This is the first time a robotic bird with these capabilities has been built and successfully flown.
  • Getting the Drop on Flight With the “X” Planes – making scale model airplanes with new designs