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Flight is the process by which an object moves either through the air, or movement beyond earth's atmosphere (as in the case of spaceflight), by generating lift, propulsive thrust or aerostatically using buoyancy, or by simple ballistic movement.


Buoyant flight

Humans, although not apparently other animals, have managed to construct lighter than air vehicles that fly due to their buoyancy in air.

Gliding versus powered flight

Some things that fly are not pushed forwards through the air and can only glide, for example flying squirrels, this is termed gliding. Others have a source of useful forward power and can climb, this is termed powered flight.


The most successful groups of living things that fly are insects, birds, and bats. The extinct Pterosaurs, an order of reptiles contemporaneous with the dinosaurs, were also very successful flying animals. Each of these groups' wings evolved independently. The wings of the flying vertebrate groups are all based on the forelimbs, but differ significantly in structure; those of insects are hypothesized to be highly-modified versions of structures that form gills in most other groups of arthropods.

Bats are the only mammals capable of sustaining level flight. However, there are several gliding mammals which are able to glide from tree to tree using fleshy membranes between their limbs; some can travel hundreds of meters in this way with very little loss in height. Flying frogs use greatly enlarged webbed feet for a similar purpose, and there are flying lizard which employ their unusually wide, flattened rib-cages to the same end. Certain snakes also use a flattened rib-cage to glide, with a back and forth motion much the same as they use on the ground.

Flying fish can glide using enlarged wing-like fins, and have been observed soaring for hundreds of meters. It is thought that this ability was chosen by natural selection because it was an effective means of escape from underwater predators. The longest recorded flight of a flying fish was 45 seconds.

Most birds fly (see bird flight), with some exceptions. The largest birds, the Ostrich and the Emu, are earthbound, as were the now-extinct Dodos and the Phorusrhacids, which were the dominant predators of South America in the Cenozoic period. The non-flying penguins have wings adapted for use under water and use the same wing movements for swimming that most other birds use for flight. Most small flightless birds are native to small islands, and lead a lifestyle where flight would confer little advantage.

Among living animals that fly, the Wandering Albatross has the greatest wingspan, up to 3.5 meters (11.5 ft); the Great Bustard has the greatest weight, topping at 21 kilograms (46 pounds).

Many species of insects also fly (See insect flight).


Mechanical flight is the use of a machine to fly. These machines include airplanes, glider, helicopters, autogyros, airships, balloon, ornithopters and spacecraft. Glider are capable of unpowered flight. Another form of mechanical flight is parasailing where a parachute-like object is pulled by a boat. In an airplane, lift is created by the wings; the shape of the wings of the airplane are designed specially for the type of flight desired. There are different types of wings: tempered, semi-tempered, sweptback, rectangular, and elliptical. An aircraft wing is sometimes called an airfoil, which is a device that creates lift when air flows across it.


Supersonic flight is flight faster than the speed of sound. Supersonic flight is associated with the formation of shock waves that form a sonic boom that can be heard from the ground, and is frequently startling. This shockwave takes quite a lot of energy to create and this makes supersonic flight generally less efficient than subsonic flight at about 85% of the speed of sound.


Hypersonic flight is very high speed flight where the heat generated by the compression of the air due to the motion through the air causes chemical changes to the air. Hypersonic flight is achieved by reentering spacecraft such as the Space Shuttle and Soyuz.


Some things generate little or no lift and move only or mostly under the action of momentum, gravity, air drag and in some cases thrust. This is termed ballistic flight. Examples include ballistic missiles, balls, arrow, orbital spaceflight etc.


Essentially an extreme form of ballistic flight, spaceflight is the use of space technology to achieve the flight of spacecraft into and through outer space.

Spaceflight is used in space exploration, and also in commercial activities like space tourism and satellite telecommunications. Additional non-commercial uses of spaceflight include space observatories, reconnaissance satellites and other earth observation satellites.

A spaceflight typically begins with a rocket launch, which provides the initial thrust to overcome the force of gravity and propels the spacecraft from the surface of the Earth. Once in space, the motion of a spacecraft—both when unpropelled and when under propulsion—is covered by the area of study called astrodynamics. Some spacecraft remain in space indefinitely, some disintegrate during atmospheric reentry, and others reach a planetary or lunar surface for landing or impact.

Study of flight

In 8th century Cordobamarker, Ibn Firnas studied the dynamism of flying and carried out a number of experiments. After one of his flights he fell on his back and he commented that he now understands the role played by the tail when birds alight on the ground, telling his close friends that birds normally land on the root of the tail which did not happen in that occasion, hence a reference to the missing tail. Durant in his book “the story of Civilisation”, quoting Al-Makkari who mentioned that Ibn Farnas indeed constructed a flying machine. However, he does not elaborate on how the machine works nor whether it was the one Ibn Farnas used nor on its destiny.

Leonardo da Vinci is one of the best-known early students of flight. He did many drawings of parachutes wings and ornithopters.

Otto Lillienthal made over 200 gliding flights and was one of the first to understand flight scientifically. His work was replicated and extended by the Wright brothers who made gliding flights and finally the first controlled and extended, manned powered flights.


Lighter-than-air aircraft are able to fly without any major input of energy

There are different approaches to flight. If an object has a lower density than air, then it is buoyant and is able to float in the air without using energy. A heavier than air craft, known as an aerodyne, includes flighted animals and insects, fixed-wing aircraft and rotorcraft. Because the craft is heavier than air, it must use the force of lift to overcome its weight. The wind resistance caused by the craft moving through the air is called drag and is overcome by propulsive thrust except in the case of gliding.

Some vehicles also use thrust for flight, for example rockets and Harrier Jump Jets.

Relevant forces

Main forces on a heavier-than-air aircraft

Forces relevant to flight are

These forces must be balanced for stable flight to occur.

Flight dynamics

Flight dynamics is the science of air and space vehicle orientation and control in three dimensions. The three critical flight dynamics parameters are the angles of rotation in three dimensions about the vehicle's center of mass, known as pitch, roll and yaw (See Tait-Bryan rotations for an explanation).

The control of these dimensions can involve a horizontal stabilizer (i.e. 'a tail'), ailerons and other movable aerodynamic devices which control angular stability i.e. flight attitude (which in turn affects altitude, heading).


In the context of an air flow relative to a flying body, the lift force is the component of the aerodynamic force that is perpendicular to the flow direction. It contrasts with the drag force, which is the parallel component of the aerodynamic force.

Lift is commonly associated with the wing of an aircraft, although lift is also generated by rotor on rotorcraft. While common meanings of the word "lift" suggest that lift opposes gravity, aerodynamic lift can be in any direction. When an aircraft is in cruise for example, lift does oppose gravity, but occurs at an angle when climbing, descending or banking.

Lift can also occur in a different way if the air is not still, especially if there is an updraft due to heat ("thermals") or wind blowing along sloping terrain or other meteorological conditions. This form of lift permits soaring and is particularly important for gliding. It is used by birds and gliders to stay in the air for long periods with little effort.


For a solid object moving through a fluid, the drag is the component of the net aerodynamic or hydrodynamic force acting opposite to the direction of the movement. The component perpendicular to this direction is considered lift. Therefore drag opposes the motion of the object, and in a powered vehicle it is overcome by thrust.

Lift-to-drag ratio

Speed and drag relationships for a typical flight article

When lift is created by the motion of an object through the air, this deflects the air, and this is the source of lift. For sustained level flight lift must be greater than weight.

However, this lift inevitably causes some drag also, and it turns out that the efficiency of lift creation can be associated with a lift-to-drag ratio for a vehicle; the lift-to-drag ratios are approximately constant over a wide range of speeds.

Lift-to-drag ratios for practical aircraft vary from about 4:1 up to 60:1 or more. The lower ratios are generally for vehicles and birds with relatively short wings, and the higher ratios are for vehicles with very long wings, such as gliders.

Thrust to weight ratio

Thrust-to-weight ratio is, as its name suggests, the ratio of instantaneous thrust to weight (where weight means weight at the Earth’s standard acceleration g_0Rocket propulsion elements- George P. Sutton Oscar Biblarz (7th edition pg 442) "thrust-to-weight ratio F/W0 is a dimensionless parameter that is identical to the acceleration of the rocket propulsion system (expressed in multiples of g0) if it could fly by itself in a gravity free vacuum"). It is a dimensionless parameter characteristic of rockets and other jet engines and of vehicles propelled by such engines (typically space launch vehicles and jet aircraft).

If the thrust-to-weight ratio is greater than the local gravity strength (expressed in gs), then flight can occur without any forward motion or any aerodynamic lift being required.

If the thrust-to-weight ratio times the lift-to-drag ratio is greater than local gravity then takeoff using aerodynamic lift is possible.

Energy efficiency

To create thrust so as to be able to gain height, and to push through the air to overcome the drag associated with lift all takes energy. Different objects and creatures capable of flight vary in the efficiency of their muscles, motors and how well this translates into forward thrust.

Propulsive efficiency determines how much energy vehicles gain from a unit of fuel.

Power to weight ratio

All animals and devices capable of sustained flight need relatively high power to weight ratios to be able to generate enough lift and/or thrust to achieve take off.

In religion, mythology and fiction

In religion, mythology and fiction, human or anthropomorphic characters sometimes have the ability to fly. Examples include angels in the Hebrew Bible, Daedalus in Greek mythology, and Superman in comics. Two other popular examples are Dumbo, the elephant created by Disney who uses his ears to fly, and Santa Claus whose sleigh is pulled by flying reindeers. Other non-human legendary creatures, such as some dragons and Pegasus, are also depicted with an ability to fly.

The ability to fly may come from wings or other visible means of propulsion, from superhuman or god-like powers, or may simply be left unexplained.

See also


External links

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