Beginner’s Series: Four Forces of Flight

How exactly DOES an airplane fly? How is it possible for a jumbo jet weighing hundreds of tons to actually lift of the ground and fly through the air?

First, it is important to understand that anything that flies through the air, from the jumbo jet we were just talking about to the small airplane you will fly for your training, to the frisbee or the paper airplane you threw as a kid (or just earlier today, you rascal), all have the same four forces acting on them allowing them to fly.

Those four forces of flight are: lift, thrust, drag, and weight (or gravity).

And here is what the four forces of flight look like in relation to each other and an airplane:

Four Forces of Flight


Lift is generated by the wings, and opposes weight / gravity. When lift is greater than weight, the airplane climbs.  When lift is less than weight, the airplane descends.  When lift and weight are equal, the airplane maintains its altitude.

Lift is always generated perpendicular to the wings (so in a turn, lift actually “pulls” sideways as the airplane banks, and in a climb, lift actually “pulls” backwards slightly, since the nose is pointed upwards somewhat). In this way, lift actually contributes to drag (see induced drag).


On your training airplane, thrust is generated by the propeller, which is turned by the powerplant. Thrust moves the airplane forward through the air, and it opposes drag.  When thrust is greater than drag, the airplane accelerates.  When drag is greater than thrust, the airplane decelerates / slows down. When thrust and drag are equal, the aircraft maintains its airspeed.

Thrust / Lift cooperation

Lift is often given credit for making an airplane fly; however, technically, no lift would be generated without thrust to move the airplane through the air. So in reality, excess thrust is actually what makes an airplane fly, because without that thrust, no lift would ever be generated in the first place!


Weight is simply how much the airplane weighs. Sometimes this force is referred to as gravity, since gravity pulls down on the plane in relation to its weight. Weight opposes lift. An airplane must create more lift than weight to climb to higher altitudes.

Weight always pulls down directly toward the ground - unlike lift, which can change direction as the airplane pitches (nose up / nose down) or rolls (“banks” (leans) left or right). This concept will be important when you start to learn about aerodynamics in turns, so keep this in mind!


Drag is, quite simply, a force that opposes thrust. As an airplane moves through the air, there is friction from the air itself running into the aircraft.

There are two types of drag you need to be aware of:

  1. Parasite Drag: also known as “form” drag. Parasite drag is simply the air “running into” parts of the airplane. Parts like antennas, rivets, tires, the windscreen, your arm sticking out the window, anything and everything that the winds “hits” causes parasite drag.
  2. Induced Drag: This type of drag is a little harder to wrap your head around, but it is simply drag caused as a result of the creation of lift.  Remember above, when I said that lift is created perpendicular to the wings? Well, the wings are never really “flat” against the wind, so the lift vector is always pointed slightly to the back of the aircraft.  That “backwards” lift is induced drag. The more lift being created, the more drag is created.

While drag opposes thrust, you should know and understand that it does not EXACTLY oppose thrust.  Just as weight always points directly down toward the ground, regardless of the airplane’s attitude, drag is always opposite to the airplane’s flight path. The flight path is rarely the same as where the nose is actually pointed. For example, in a climb, thrust points directly where the nose is pointing, but the aircraft is not climbing directly where the nose is pointing; it is actually “mushing” into the air somewhat, which means drag is offset slightly “above” the thrust vector. This can be difficult to imagine, so see the below image of the 4 vectors during an aircraft’s climb (exaggerated):

Four Forces in a Climb

In conclusion, and to circle back around to the initial question: “How is it possible for a jumbo jet to actually lift of the ground and fly through the air?”

Any airplane will fly if its thrust exceeds its drag, and its lift exceeds its weight. If the four engines on a Boeing 747, producing a total thrust of more than 250,000 pounds, can exceed the drag the aircraft produces, and its 196 foot long wings can produce enough lift to exceed its weight (maximum 970,000 pounds), it can fly!

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Beginner’s Series: Parts of an Airplane

When you start your flight training, you will learn lots of new terms and phrases. You’ll be expected to know what those terms refer to in relation to your airplane.

Wings, tail, engine, etc. are pretty easy to remember, but there are many new terms that you may not be familiar with. Such as:

Fuselage Empennage
Spinner Aileron
Horizontal Stabilizer Vertical Stabilizer
Cowl Cockpit

And other words that you may know but that mean something different in relation to aircraft:

Trim Strut
Elevator Rudder
Beacon Flap

With that in mind, let’s take a look at all the parts of an airplane that you’ll need to know.  We’ll also discuss a little bit about what they do and how they work.
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The fuselage (sounds like "moose-ah-lodge") is the main body of the airplane. The wings, tail, and landing gear are attached to the fuselage. Basically, it holds everything else together as well as containing the passengers and baggage.

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The empennage (sounds like "hemp-a-nudge") is what is colloquially known as the “Tail” of an airplane – the entire tail section.  The tail section (empennage) actually consists of multiple parts:

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  • Vertical Stabilizer: the “up and down” (vertical) part of the tail, to which the rudder is attached
  • Rudder: The rudder is a “control surface” which moves side-to-side, controlling the airplane’s “yaw.” Similar to the rudder of a boat.
  • Rudder Trim Tab: Most likely, your training airplane will not have rudder trim, or will have a “fixed” rudder trim tab. A fixed rudder trim tab can only be adjusted while the plane is on the ground. A fixed tab should only be adjusted by a qualified aircraft mechanic (see picture below).

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  • Horizontal Stabilizer: The “side-to-side” (horizontal) part of the tail, to which the elevators are attached.  Sometimes referred to as the “tail wing” (interestingly, this is not an incorrect term).
  • Elevator: The elevator is a “control surface” which moves up-and-down, controlling the airplane’s “pitch” (whether the nose is pointed up or down).  There are generally two elevators, one on each side of the vertical stabilizer. Each elevator is connected to one of the horizontal stabilizers, which are located on each side of the vertical stabilizer. Both elevators move the same direction when moved.
  • Elevator Trim Tab: The elevator trim tab is a small portion of the elevator that is a control surface in and of itself.  It is moved by a wheel or crank in the cockpit of the aircraft, and allows the pilot to “set” the elevator position.  Think of it as “cruise control” for the airplane, as it can be set to a specific airspeed or pitch. Once set, the airplane will always try to return to this setting when disturbed (by the pilot or atmospheric conditions). See picture, below.

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The cockpit is simply where the pilot sits.  It has all the controls to move and adjust the control surfaces (which include the rudder, elevators, ailerons, flaps, and trim), as well as flight instruments. Flight instruments are like the speedometer and tachometer in your car: they give the pilot important information about what the plane is doing and where it is going. Communication and navigation radios are also found in the cockpit. You will learn all about the stuff in the cockpit of your specific training aircraft. The cockpit is sometimes called the “Flight Deck” (especially on larger aircraft).

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Wings are pretty self-explanatory and easy to recognize.  They stick out from the fuselage to each side of the airplane. An airplane's wings hold some of the plane's control surfaces (ailerons and flaps, to be specific).  They also hold fuel tanks and some instrument system parts, such as the pitot tube and stall sensor. Depending on whether your airplane is a high-wing or low-wing, it may support your main landing gear or have a strut. The front (round) part of the wing is called the “Leading Edge,” and the back (pointy) part of the wing is called the “Trailing Edge.”

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The ailerons (pronounced "ale-er-ons") are control surfaces that are attached to the wings of the airplane.  They live on the outer portion of the trailing edge of each wing, and there are two of them.  They move up-and-down, and always move opposite in relation to each other (if the right aileron moves up, the left aileron moves down). They control the “bank” or “roll” of the airplane. The airplane “banks” or “rolls” when it turns and “leans” into the turn, sort of like when you are riding a bicycle.

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The flaps are also attached to the trailing edge of the wings, one on each side, just like the ailerons. Flaps, though, are “inside” – closer to the fuselage – if they exist at all. Flaps can be extended or retracted. They can also be “partially extended,” which just means that they are not “fully extended.”  They are used to generate extra lift (and they also create A LOT of drag), and are usually only used on landing. Sometimes, you will use flaps when you are doing certain maneuvers in flight. They are also sometimes used on takeoff in very specific situations. They are generally electrically or manually driven on training aircraft (they are often hydraulic on large aircraft).

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Most high-wing airplanes have a strut, which is really just a support for the wing. It is used to save weight (and headroom in the cockpit), since having a spar strong enough to support the entire length of the wing requires thicker, stronger, and heavier metal throughout the entire length of the wing (from wingtip to wingtip).  The strut simply attaches to the fuselage (usually in front of and near the bottom of the cockpit door) and the wing itself, somewhere about 1/3 of the way out or so from the fuselage.

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The propeller is out on the nose of the aircraft, in front of the engine.  It spins around (clockwise if you are looking at it from inside the cockpit), and generates thrust, which “propels” the aircraft forward – hence its name. Think of it as a rotating wing, because, well, that’s actually what it is. Not shown in the images, but see the picture below.

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The spinner is the cone-shaped cover in the center of the propeller.  It reduces drag and protects the hub at the center of the propeller.

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This is just another term for the engine. It produces power to turn the propeller and create electricity to charge the battery and run the electronic instruments and communication / navigation (com/nav) radios.


The cowl is the part of the fuselage that covers the engine. Think of it like the hood of your car, only for your airplane. Also called “cowling.”

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Most airplanes have a “rotating beacon” (actually, these days it is usually a flashing beacon), that is simply a red light – usually at the top of the vertical stabilizer – that flashes, pulses, or blinks. The beacon is the first electric device turned on before starting the engine and the last one turned off after shutting down the engine. Pilots and “in the know” airport visitors see a flashing beacon as a warning that an airplane is about to start its engine or move on the tarmac.  There are a few other lights on an airplane, including wingtip strobes, navigation (nav) lights – also on the wingtips – and the back of the empennage, landing lights & taxi lights, etc.

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These are the parts of an airplane that you will need to know. Knowing these terms will help you make sense of upcoming lessons and information. It will also make it easier for you to decipher the language a pilot speaks. There are other, smaller parts that you will learn more deeply as you continue through your training. All these terms may seem like a lot to learn. I promise that learning them, using them, and hearing them will make you fluent in “pilotspeak.”

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Smart Flight Training Ground School

So you want to start taking flight lessons to learn to fly and officially become a pilot?

Good for you!  There are about 617,128 active pilots in the United States, which is about 0.2% of the US population - that's ZERO POINT TWO percent, or two out of every thousand people in the country.

It's a very exclusive club.

Exclusive Club

And it's a club that is open to everyone who is willing to take the time and put in the work to earn the right to join.

Smart Flight Training is here to make your flight training journey as enjoyable as possible, and to make sure it gets done right for you, right from the start.

Becoming a pilot is not simple. It is not easy. What it is, however, is fun. It's challenging. It's confidence-building. And it's something that very few people can say they have done.

So let's talk about what it takes to learn to fly and become a pilot.

Ground School & Knowledge

Ground School

There is a LOT to learn when you start to learn to fly, and there are a lot of ways to get the knowledge you need:

  • Structured Ground School Class
  • One-on-one with your flight instructor
  • Self-study

Each of these has pros and cons.

For instance, one-on-one ground training with your flight instructor is personalized and thorough, but it takes a lot of time and gets very expensive (you pay your instructor by the hour, usually).  Additionally, many flight instructors don't like to do ground training - flight instructors like to fly!  There are exceptions, of course, and you will always do SOME ground training with your instructor, but there are better, more efficient (and less expensive!) ways to get the knowledge you need!

Self-study seems like it might be a way to save a lot of money while obtaining the knowledge the Federal Aviation Administration requires of all pilots, and in a way, it is; however, you don't have an instructor to answer your specific questions, and you may think you have understood something correctly when you have actually misunderstood. These misunderstandings mean your flight instructor has to not only teach you the correct understanding, but "un-teach" the misunderstanding. This, again, adds time and cost to your training.

A structured ground school class offers you the best of both worlds - you get the knowledge you need (there will be assignments and things to study on your own), but while you are in class, you also get the expertise of a flight or ground instructor - someone who understands the material and knows it well - who can explain it to you before a potential misunderstanding of the concepts and subject matter takes hold. This ensures that you understand it right the first time. But you also have to attend the classes when they are scheduled - and that just simply doesn't work for most busy people.

Smart Flight Training offers the best of all the above - our ground school offers you the ability to self-study on your schedule, but also have access to a certified flight instructor on a regular basis to answer your questions, clear up any confusion, and make sure you "get it." This makes your (expensive) time with your flight instructor go much more smoothly, saving you time and money, and getting you in the air more quickly - which is really the goal here, right?

Smart Flight Training's ground School covers everything you need for both knowledge and skill - not just what you need to know, but also how to apply it all - and how it all relates and correlates to everything else you need to learn. And sometimes, it'll teach a little about life and not just flying, too.

For ground school knowledge, your modules include:

  • Airplane Systems
  • Principles of Aerodynamics
  • The Flight Environment
  • Aviation Communication
  • Aviation Meteorology
  • FAA Regulations
  • Weather Data Sources and Interpretation
  • Aircraft Performance
  • Navigation
  • Principles of Human Factors & Physiology
  • Cross-Country Flying

Flight Training

Flight Training

Flight Training is where the rubber meets the road, so to say. I guess more accurately, it's where the rubber leaves the pavement.

Smart Flight Training's ground school can't take care of the actual flying that you have to do to learn to fly, but we won't leave you in the dark for that part of your training, either.

Throughout the ground school modules, there will also be information about the maneuvers you will learn with you own flight instructor. This information will be written, images, audio, and video explaining what you will learn, what it will feel like, what it will look like, and what to expect when you go up with your instructor and practice.

This will prepare you for the real thing by taking away any question of what is happening to the airplane and what you will do during these maneuvers. Your instructor will explain them in his or her own way before the flight, too, but when you are prepared in every way possible, your apprehension is at a minimum, and you can concentrate on flying the airplane and learning how to make it do what you want it to do, instead of just being along for the ride the first few times before figuring it all out.

Again, this saves you time and money, and gets you to your end goal of becoming a pilot sooner.

Examples of maneuvers that you will see demonstrated and learn about during the ground school sessions include:

  • Steep Turns
  • Stalls (both power-off stalls and power-on stalls)
  • Ground Reference Maneuvers
  • Performance Take-offs and Landings
  • Unusual Attitudes
  • Night Flight
  • Emergency Descents
  • and more...

What to Expect on the Checkride


All of the above, including the time you spend with your flight instructor in the air, will prepare you thouroughly for your written test (now known as the knowledge test) and your checkride with an FAA examiner.

The knowledge test is taken at a designated knowledge testing facility (lasergrade and CATS have locations all over the country), and if you have completed all the lessons in the ground school, Smart Flight Training guarantees that you will pass the first time, or we pay for your retest.

Your checkride will consist of knowledge questions during an oral portion, which will include items the examiner saw that you missed on the written test / knowledge test. You will also accomplish a practical portion during the checkride, where you fly with the examiner and demonstrate your mastery of the aircraft and the maneuvers you have learned with your flight instructor.

Here again, if you fail a checkride based on your knowledge during the oral portion of your checkride, Smart Flight Training will pay your retest fee.  Since we did not fly with you, however, we can't offer a guarantee on the practical portion of your checkride.  Talk to your instructor about that!

Smart Flight Training's Online Ground School

Smart Flight Training Ground School

Smart Flight Training's ground school is still under construction at the moment, but if you are interested in learning more or getting on our waiting list, please enter your name and email below to get on the waiting list!  If you are on the waiting list before we launch, you will be able to get our training at 50% off (this will save you at least $100)!



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Testing Tuesday: VFR on Top Clearance

Today's Testing Tuesday will be beneficial to both primary students and instrument students, as it discusses that strangest of clearances: VFR on Top.

What is the required flight visibility and distance from clouds if you are operating in in Class E airspace at 9,500 feet MSL with a VFR-On-Top clearance during daylight hours?

  1. 3 SM, 1,000 feet above, 500 feet below, and 2,000 feet horizontal
  2. 5 SM, 500 feet above, 1,000 feet below, and 2,000 feet horizontal
  3. 3 SM, 500 feet above, 1,000 feet below, and 2,000 feet horizontal

Click here to display the answer...

Andrew Hartley is a certificated flight instructor and commercial pilot in Columbus, Ohio.

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Testing Tuesday – Displaced Thresholds

Which runway marking indicates a displaced threshold on an instrument runway?

  1. Red chevron marks in the nonlanding portion of the runway
  2. Centerline dashes starting at the threshold
  3. Arrows leading to the threshold mark

Click here to display the answer...

Andrew Hartley is a certificated flight instructor and commercial pilot in Columbus, Ohio.

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