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Why Plane Wings Don't Break

Why Plane Wings Don't Break - Wings. Ah those delicious Buffalo style chicken wings. I actually had those in Buffalo. Just love em! Especially when they’re hot and spicy! You…uh ‘scuse me. Oh, not that kind of wing? The airplane kind? Got it. Alright -- let’s start over shall we? Even if you don't know anything else about airplanes, you know the wings are a pretty important part of the whole system.

It’s the one idea we took from birds, after all. But you know, a worm-powered airliner would be something to see. Get on that, will ya Boeing? Not counting the absence of feathers, the most significant change human engineers made over the original design was that plane wings tend to not move. Or do they? A plane's wings might not flap, but they can certainly bend.

In fact, they bend quite a lot for something we're used to thinking of as completely solid and stiff. What causes this to happen, and how far can a plane's wings bend before they break? If you've ever been seated on a plane with a good view of the wings, you might’ve noticed they tend to bounce up a bit during turbulence.

Why Plane Wings Don't Break

This can be scary if you don't know why it’s happening, especially if you're not someone who spends a lot of time in the air. Are the wings seconds away from snapping like a twig? The good news is no, the wings aren’t about to come unscrewed and fly off on their own. In fact, it’s precisely because they can bend that an airplane's wings don't break.

Since the wings are the part of the plane that holds everything else up in the air,they need to be able to take a lot of weight. Instead of being completely rigid, the wings of modern aircraft are designed to function a bit like springs. Imagine the wings as shock absorbers in a car. When you drive over a bump, the shocks absorb most of the impact, giving you a much smoother ride.

You might still get shaken up a little bit, but nowhere near as much as if you didn’t have shocks at all. If the plane's wings were rigid, even the slightest turbulence would reverberate throughout the entire aircraft. This would make the aircraft much harder to control, especially on large planes like passenger airlines.

Not to mention that a rigid structure would make them more likely to break off, not less. And of course, that soft drink and pretzels you’ve been enjoying would now be splashed all over you and the guy next to you. And he ain’t too happy about it either. Consider this tid-bit: concrete will crack and splinter during an earthquake, but wooden structures will remain stable.

There are Japanese pagodas that have survived centuries in one of the most tectonically active places on Earth, all because the timbers were able to flex instead of breaking. This is also why the designers of earthquake-resistant buildings focus on finding ways to make the structures more flexible, instead of trying to resist the vibration through sheer strength.

It's not vibrations that cause things to break, but the inability to move with them. Remember this the next time you get into an argument with your friends. Sure, you might know Mulan is the best Disney princess, but sometimes it's better to just go with the flow than dig in your feet. Sorry Elsa.

But how exactly do aircraft wings remain so flexible without bending at right angles everytime a plane needs to make a hard turn. How can something be strong enough to support thousands of pounds of aircraft, while still being flexible enough to keep it stable? Well, modern aircraft have a few things going for them in the wing department.

The first and most significant thing is the material. You might have heard that most planes are made from aluminum, and unless you’re taking to the skies in an early 20th century era biplane, that’ll be true of pretty much any aircraft you climb into. That doesn't mean you can build a plane out of old soda cans, at least not without a whole lot of extra effort.

Aircraft-grade aluminum is an alloy of aluminum and zinc, sometimes accompanied by other metals such as copper, magnesium and lead. Lead? In an airplane? Yeah! This process results in a material as strong as steel, but much lighter, more flexible,and immune to rust. Can it file my taxes too?Ha ha! Now you’re being silly.

Adding to the strength of the wing is a structure known as the spar, a metal bar running the length of the aircraft's wings. They serve the dual purpose of supporting the wings when on the ground, and the fuselage when in the air. The exact design and number of spars will vary depending on the manufacturer and what kind of plane they’re designing, but the basic principles remain the same.

Traditionally, spars were made from aluminum, just like the rest of the plane. However, that doesn’t mean that more exotic materials haven’t been used instead. Some fighter jets, such as the American F-15 Eagle, feature titanium spars, and many newer aircraft incorporated specially designed composite materials.

This includes substances like aircraft-grade carbon fiber and Kevlar, the stuff that’s put in the protective vests the police wear. Not that you should go around an airport pelting nearby aircraft with projectiles. That's a quick way to get yourself tasered, and the TSA is going to have some very serious questions for you when you wake up.

Just shocking!Anyway, my point is that a wobbling wing is perfectly normal and nothing to worry about. According to experts, the only way a plane’s wings could break off, was if the airline that owned it was guilty of a truly horrendous degree of negligence.

Considering the comprehensive testing and inspections planes are subject to on a regular basis, it's highly unlikely that an aircraft that dangerously unfit to fly would ever be allowed to take to the skies. Now that might cover planes, but they aren’t the only man made objects crowding the skies.

Blimps and hot air balloons obviously don’t have wings to worry about, but what about helicopters. Aren’t rotors basically just wings that spin? Doesn’t that mean they should have basically the same problems? Yes, and yes. As with a plane’s wings, helicopter rotors are not one hundred percent rigid.

They’re actually even more flexible and will visibly hang down when the vehicle is on the ground. Once the blades start spinning, they produce lift in the same way as the wings of a plane. They straighten out in flight due to the upward motion and the weight of the aircraft body hanging down in the center.

The flexibility in the rotors serves the same purpose as in a plane's wings: reducing the effect of vibrations and making the aircraft easier to control. As with the wings on an airplane, rotors are typically made from aluminum, carbon fiber or Kevlar, and have a semi-rigid spar running down their length.

The next time you jump on a plane for a quick hop across the pond, don’t panic when you see the wings doing a little shimmy. It might not look like it, but they’re functioning exactly as intended. So, do you feel better about soaring the skies knowing the wings aren’t likely to take an early lunch? If you could fly any helicopter or plane, what would it be? Would you like to roll up in an F-18, or are biplanes more your speed? Let me know in the comments below this article.

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