The airplane has six main parts—fuselage, wings, stabilizer (or tail plane), rudder, one or more engines, and landing gear. The fuselage is the main body of the machine, customarily streamlined in form. It usually contains control equipment, and space for passengers and cargo. The wings are the main supporting surfaces. Modern airplanes are monoplanes (airplanes with one wing) and may be high-wing, mid-wing, or low-wing (relative to the bottom of the fuselage). At the trailing edge of the wings are auxiliary hinged surfaces known as ailerons that are used to gain lateral control and to turn the airplane.
The lift of an airplane, or the force that supports it in flight, is basically the result of the direct action of the air against the surfaces of the wings, which causes air to be accelerated downward. The lift varies with the speed, there being a minimum speed at which flight can be maintained. This is known as the stall speed. Because speed is so important to maintain lift, objects such as fuel tanks and engines, that are carried outside the fuselage are enclosed in structures called nacelles, or pods, to reduce air drag (the retarding force of the air as the airplane moves through it).
Directional stability is provided by the tail fin, a fixed vertical airfoil at the rear of the plane. The stabilizer, or tail plane, is a fixed horizontal airfoil at the rear of the airplane used to suppress undesired pitching motions. To the rear of the stabilizer are usually hinged the elevators, movable auxiliary surfaces that are used to produce controlled pitching. The rudder, generally at the rear of the tail fin, is a movable auxiliary airfoil that gives the craft a yawing (turning about a vertical axis) movement in normal flight. The rear array of airfoils is called the empennage, or tail assembly. Some aircraft have additional flaps near the ailerons that can be lowered during takeoff and landing to augment lift at the cost of increased drag. On some airplanes hinged controls are replaced or assisted by spoilers, which are ridges that can be made to project from airfoils.
Airplane engines may be classified as driven by propeller, jet, turbojet, or rocket. Most engines originally were of the internal-combustion, piston-operated type, which may be air- or liquid-cooled. During and after World War II, duct-type and gas-turbine engines became increasingly important, and since then jet propulsion has become the main form of power in most commercial and military aircraft. The landing gear is the understructure that supports the weight of the craft when on the ground or on the water and that reduces the shock on landing. There are five common types—the wheel, float, boat, skid, and ski types.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.