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With how much friction and air resistance acting against airplanes, it’s amazing they can even fly. How do pilots overcome friction in the atmosphere?

Friction leads to drag and acts against the forward momentum of an aircraft. Pilots are able to overcome this friction in the atmosphere thanks to careful design of the aircraft including shape, edges, airfoils, size, etc., and thanks to the powerful engines that propel airplanes through the sky.

To understand how pilots are able to overcome friction in the atmosphere, it’s important to at least have an idea of how planes fly in general. In this article, we’ll go over this friction force in detail, give a brief overview of how planes are able to fly, the ways in which pilots can overcome this friction, and more. So sit back and strap in, you’re about to learn everything you want to know about overcoming friction and drag in the atmosphere!

Everything you read in this article has been gone through with careful eyes to make sure it’s all as accurate as possible. After all, our goal at SkyTough is to provide our readers with the most helpful content on the web. With a technical topic like this, the best way to ensure accurate information is to take our own knowledge and expertise and combine it with lots of research. That way, we’re able to offer you the most accurate information we can. Enjoy!

Table of contents


What Is Friction In The Atmosphere?

Friction is one of the most common forces in the world in just about any type of motion or dynamics. It is a broad category of force and best described simply as a resistant force acting in the opposite direction of motion of an object. It is the best thought of when you slide an object on a surface, it just doesn’t keep moving forever.

If there were no friction forces whatsoever, then something sliding across a surface would just keep on going forever. But as we know, that just doesn’t happen! There are all kinds of ways to think about friction. As your car drives down the road, you have friction between the tires and road and also between the car and the air. And of course as an airplane flies through the air, friction in the atmosphere fights against the plane’s forward momentum.

If you’re familiar with how airplanes fly, then you know about the four major forces of flight. If not, we’ll get into them a little later on in this article. But one of those four forces basically boils down entirely to being friction in the atmosphere — drag. In other words, pilots and airplanes have to overcome the friction in the atmosphere (or this drag force) to be able to actually fly.

How Does Friction Affect An Airplane?

As mentioned, friction in the atmosphere can also be referred to as drag. If you don’t really know what drag is or what it does, just suffice to know that it is the force acting against the forward momentum of the aircraft. A simple way to think about it is that this friction in the atmosphere “drags” the aircraft back, wanting to stop it from moving forward.

Friction in the atmosphere affects an airplane in much the same way that friction on any other surface affects an object that’s moving forward. The good thing about friction in the atmosphere, however, is that air gets thinner and thinner the higher you go. So as airplanes reach cruising altitudes closer to their service ceilings, the air is so much thinner that the force of friction acting against its forward movement is less.

So as you can surmise, the friction force is greatest at lower altitudes and during acceleration. This combination of altitude and airspeed is typically most pronounced during takeoff and during the initial ascent. So how does the airplane overcome this friction and manage to not only get up to speed and up to its cruising altitude but also maintain that altitude and speed during the flight?

The Four Forces Of Flight

Before we get into the ways that a pilot is able to overcome atmospheric friction and keep the plane in the skies, let’s take a very brief look at the four major forces of flight. We’ll spare you the nitty-gritty technical details here since this topic is covered in-depth in our article about how planes fly. But here’s a quick overview of each of the four major forces that are part of every flight that an airplane makes:

  • Lift — When lift was figured out during the early days of understanding flight, it changed everything. As its name implies, lift is the force that naturally creates lift on the aircraft, propelling it upwards into the sky. This is done mainly through an aircraft’s wings, which force air to move above and below them at different speeds. This creates natural zones of high and low pressure, which forces the airplane off the ground and into the sky.
  • Thrust — When it comes to aircraft and flight, thrust can almost always be used synonymously with power. It’s basically the force produced by the plane’s engine and thrusts the aircraft forward through the air. Lift and thrust are basically the two positive forces that are generated by the aircraft itself to enable flight. But each one has an opposite force acting on it.
  • Weight — The weight of the aircraft is determined by the force of gravity, forcing it back down to earth. Mass is what most people are really thinking of when they think of “weight”, but weight is actually an object’s mass with gravity taken into account. This gravitational force downward is what the airplane’s lift needs to be able to overcome to actually get off the ground and up into the sky.
  • Drag — Lastly, the force that this article is mainly focused on. Drag. As mentioned, you can think of drag as the atmospheric friction that the pilot needs to overcome to fly. Drag acts against the momentum of the aircraft, needing to be overcome by the lift and thrust generated by the aircraft, especially the thrust. For simplicity’s sake, you can imagine an airplane’s thrust as pushing it forward through the sky and the drag (or friction) pushes straight back against it.

So now that you have a little more information about the four forces of flight and how each one is necessary, let’s get into the good stuff.

How Do Planes Overcome Friction And Drag?

As you’ve probably been able to piece together by this point in this article, a pilot needs to overcome friction in the atmosphere (read: drag) in order to actually fly the airplane. If this drag force cannot be overcome by the pilot and the airplane, then the plane will not be able to remain airborne, so it’s incredibly important that this force can be overcome. So how does the pilot do it?

How An Airplane’s Design Helps Overcome Friction

Just like an aircraft’s wings (airfoils) are carefully designed to generate and maintain lift and get the airplane off the ground, planes are also designed to overcome friction. The drag force created by the friction in the atmosphere can largely be attributed to air resistance as the plane tries to force itself through the sky at incredibly high speeds.

If you’ve ever stuck your hand out of the window of your car on the highway, you know all about air resistance. If you stick your hand out with the palm facing straight forward, you’ll feel a massive force pushing your hand back, this is because of the air hitting the broadside of your hand, which is not very aerodynamic at all. But if you turn your hand so the air is hitting the side of it, the air might not even force your hand backward much, if at all.

Now think of that same principle but on a much larger scale. As an aircraft flies through the sky, it needs to overcome this friction and air resistance in order to keep moving forward and maintain safe flying conditions. So just like you made your hand more aerodynamic by turning it sideways, airplanes are made aerodynamic during the design stage early on in construction.

The way that an airplane is designed has a huge impact on its ability to overcome friction due to the aerodynamics created by the design and surfaces of a plane. Think of just about any surface on an airplane. They’re all rounded edges with the carefully designed placement of any features. The wings, the nose, the fuselage, every part of the airplane.

They’re all designed to allow air to easily flow past them. This helps to lower the friction and drag pushing against the aircraft as much as possible since there are no surfaces that generate substantial amounts of air resistance. That’s why the design of airplanes is so important. If these surfaces were not designed so delicately to overcome air resistance, the friction and drag would be too great for flight to occur in the first place.

The Importance Of The Plane’s Engine In Overcoming Friction

Even more so than the airplane’s design and aerodynamics, the engine producing the plane’s power (or thrust) is by far the most important thing that a plane will use to overcome friction in the atmosphere. After all, think back to the four major components of flight above. Drag is counteracted by thrust, which is produced by the plane’s engine(s).

The engines on an airplane need to be capable of producing more than enough power to overcome drag and friction, but also need to be sized correctly for the aircraft so that they’re not too big and powerful. If the engines are oversized, sure they might produce enough power to overcome the friction in the atmosphere, but they’ll also add unnecessary weight and cost to the airplane. So it’s important that the right engines are used for each plane.

Since the engine is the single biggest part of the airplane that will help overcome friction and drag, redundant engines are added on larger airplanes such as commercial airliners. When we say redundant, we don’t actually mean that some engines are entirely unneeded. But many commercial airplanes can actually continue flying like normal even if one of their engines fails, regardless of if it has 2 or 4 engines.

That’s because these planes are designed to be able to keep overcoming the friction in the atmosphere and drag even during an emergency like engine failure since the cargo (passengers) is so important. Airplane engines produce insane amounts of power, but that’s what’s necessary to overcome atmospheric friction, just to give you an idea of how powerful this friction force truly is.

What Happens If A Pilot Cannot Overcome Friction In The Atmosphere?

If a pilot cannot overcome friction and drag during a flight, that is not going to be a good thing. In order to actually fly in the first place, the plane must be able to overcome this friction force holding it back. So what happens if a pilot is unable to power the plane through the friction and overcome this force?

Something like this will typically only happen if one of two things occur during flight, neither of which is common. But both are which would certainly be a bad thing — engine failure or surface failure. As you read above, the two main things that go into overcoming the friction and drag that pilots face during flight are the design (surfaces) and the engine. So if either of those systems fails, you can imagine there will be issues overcoming these forces to keep flying.

If an engine fails, this becomes an issue because the plane loses significant power (or thrust). As you know from above, thrust is the major component of flight that overcomes drag and helps the plane to keep moving forward. So if enough thrust is lost due to engine failure, the plane will not be able to overcome this force anymore. This is why engine failure can be a major issue, and the plane will start descending if it doesn’t have the power needed to overcome the drag.

While engine failure is incredibly rare in itself, surface failure is even much rarer. When we say surface failure, we’re referring to either something on the plane breaking off or a piece of the airplane’s skin peeling back. Since a plane’s surface is designed so intricately with aerodynamics in mind, any sort of change in its surface can have a huge impact on friction. Again, think of your hand outside the window on the highway and you’ll know what we mean.

Just like with engine failure, surface failure like this will alter the plane’s ability to overcome friction and drag. And if the issue is big enough to allow the friction to be strong enough, then the plane will start descending as it would with engine failure. The worst part about this type of emergency is that surface failure can lead to additional stresses on other parts of the plane’s surface, which can then lead to more failure and more and more friction.

So in any case, if the pilot is unable to overcome the friction in the atmosphere and the accompanying drag force, the plane will inevitably go down. This is why it’s so important for pilots to recognize any potential failures as early as possible so that they have as much time as possible to communicate with Air Traffic Control and come up with a plan of action and a safe place to land.

Constant vigilance of the aircraft and communication with ATC is vital during any flight. That’s why pilots are so well-trained and always stay on top of their game!