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If you would like to learn more about airplanes... Where do you start?



First of all: The course reader for my class is here:


Warning: Huge PDF, about 95 megs (500 slides).

As I mention elsewhere on this website, I have created a shortened version of my course, so that I can teach the whole thing (well, the most important parts) in a single eight-hour day. I removed the parts about aviation history, stealth airplane design, piston engines, aerobatics, afterburners and variable-geometry nozzles, biplanes, rotorcraft, seaplanes, rockets, single-engine airplanes made of fabric and welded tubes or fiberglass and foam... and other topics that are not applicable to commercial airliners. The slides for the shortened version can be found here:


This one is about 41 megs (240 slides).



A good way to learn more about airplane development is to watch documentaries and talks about the development of specific aircraft models.

My favorites:

 • "21st Century Jet", about the development of the 777, in five parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. (You have probably seen this clip).

 • "Giant of the Skies", about the development of the A380, also in five parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

 • Black Sky, about the development of SpaceShip One. (DVD here.)

 • Battle of the X-Planes, a PBS NOVA about the X-32 and X-35/F-35 Joint Strike Fighter fly-off competition. (DVD here.)

 • The Wright Brothers' Flying Machine, another PBS NOVA. (DVD here.)

 • This episode of "Great Planes" about the development of the 747.

 • Discovery Channel "Wings" about airplanes such as the XB-70.

 • The "Strange Planes" series, about unusual aircraft: Parts 1 and 2, part 3, parts 4 and 5.

 • "Mayday", a.k.a. "Air Crash Investigation", is a long-running television series where each episode shows a dramatized reenactment of a real airplane accident, including explanations about why it happened.

Various other TV shows - Mega-Factories, Modern Marvels, Battle Stations, Mega Structures, Great Planes, Wings, and spin-offs such as Wings of the Luftwaffe, just to name a few - have interesting episodes about the development and operational history of cool airplanes. Other videos - that are not part of any series - include these about the Concorde, X-15, Blackbird, B-2, YF-23, etc. Also, airplane maintenance can be surprisingly interesting!

Many engineers and pilots involved with the development of then-new airplanes have delivered extremely informative talks about that process. Some of my favorites include this one about the F-14, this one about Northrop's flying wings, this one about Burt Rutan's airplanes, this one about NASA's latest prototypes testing the lift distribution used by birds, and this amazing DVD set full of interviews with the test pilots who flew the first prototypes of each new Boeing jetliner, including the pilots discussing neat clips such as flying the 737 from grass strips and, of course, the 707 roll.

If you are a Boeing employee, then you have access to several huge treasure troves of videos of presentations given by experts about their work, e.g. here and here and here. My favorites are Aircraft Configuration Design, Lessons Learned from Aviation Accidents, the history of composites at Boeing, Interiors Crashworthiness (which is really about how airliner design has evolved over the decades), what it's like to be an airline pilot, and the ones about Boeing's history: 1916-1940, 1945-1970, 1970-present, and "Stump the Historian". Also cool are these talks about Hybrid Laminar Flow and about flight-testing the B-47. As a structures engineer, I also like presentations like the ones about the 737 decompression incidents, 787 battery containment, fracture-surface analysis, and tow-steering and non-traditional laminates. (These red links only work if you are inside the Boeing network).

Many videos are excellent introductions to more academic topics such as fluid mechanics. Air flows in ways that can be very counter-intuitive, and the best way to build a "correct" intuition for it is to watch and scrutinize wind-tunnel videos and other flow-visualization classroom demonstrations designed to make fluid mechanics phenomena clear. For example, in my class I show a 15-minute video about trans-sonic flight. That video is an edit of the following three videos: 1, 2, 3. (Lots more where that came from, e.g. here). But the best series of videos about aerodynamics is definitely the one made in 1961 by the National Committee for Fluid Mechanics Films. No joke. Watch them here.



If you are interested in what it's like to be a pilot, and in what pilots need to know:

Patrick Smith's "Cockpit Confidential" and Mark Vanhoenacker's "Skyfaring: A Journey With a Pilot" are two interesting and entertaining non-fiction books about what it's like to be a commercial pilot. The first is a little funnier and the second is a little more philosophical, but both are really enjoyable. When it comes to fiction, I would recommend the novels of John J Nance, such as "The Last Hostage".

On a more serious note: When someone starts flight training, there is a series of things that they must learn: Airspace (when can you fly where, in what kind of weather, how to get clearance, how to fly around a busy airport even if there is no control tower, etc.), airplane systems and the instrument panel (i.e. how to recognize and safely correct for common instrument errors and rare failures), weather (how the FAA defines various kinds of weather, how to read and interpret aviation weather reports and forecasts, what kinds of flying cannot be done in what weather), navigation (how to use various navigational radios, how to read aviation maps), radio communications, general principles of aerodynamics and airplane engines, how to calculate the amount of weight an airplane can carry and how much runway is needed to take off and land, and the various regulations that govern things like: what training is required to fly what kinds of aircraft for what purposes, minimum altitudes, what to do if there is an accident or incident, medical (i.e. health) requirements and psychological/sensory phenomena that impact flying, what equipment must be on board and operational and what maintenance must be done how often in order for an airplane to be legal to fly in certain airspace, weather conditions, and for certain purposes, etc.

The FAA has an excellent document that includes all the "book learning" necessary to pass the written portion of the test for a Private Pilot certificate. It is surprisingly clear and readable. It's called the "Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge" and you can download it for free (or, if you prefer, buy a printed copy). Many of the diagrams that I show in my class come from this book.

The first step of becoming a pilot is learning all the stuff in that book, which is typically done by signing up for a "ground school" course at your local flight training facility, or online. Embry-Riddle offers a free online ground-school course. Other websites offer the course for a fee, with the advantage that the course then counts as Flight Training: Upon completing the paid course, you have fulfilled the FAA's ground school requirement, and you receive the endorsement that is required for signing up and taking the FAA's written test. (I did my ground school online this way, through Gleim, following the recommendation of my flight instructor).

Videos covering many of the same concepts can be found on YouTube.



Online, it is possible to find content from some introductory college courses about airplane design. I may be slightly biased ;) but my top recommendation would be the notes from Stanford's AA241. The writing explains things clearly, the graphics are helpful, and there are lots of examples. This is also true of Stanford's aerodynamics class, AA208. As for propulsion, however, I would recommend MIT's class about airplane engines, propellers, etc.

One excellent book about airplane design that covers all the relevant topics with clear intuitive explanations and lots of pictures and graphs (and the occasional equation) is Ray Whitford's "Design For Air Combat". It focuses almost entirely on military airplanes, dissecting every line of their designs, with tons of fascinating examples from fighters, bombers, spy planes, tankers, and experimental prototypes from around the world. Super cool stuff. Best of all; You can read it online for free!

Although most homebuilt (i.e. small amateur-built) aircraft are made from kits of parts sold by professionals, many are designed and built by people who do not have formal training in aeronautical engineering! And yes, most of these airplanes go on to be flown safely for many years. Many builders start by creating remote-control models, or by modifying airplanes that other people have designed and built, before finally working up to eventually designing their own airplanes. It turns out that designing a small airplane, with typically one or two seats, is actually not that difficult, especially if you "keep things simple" and use roughly the same shapes and materials and systems already in use by other airplanes.By far the most popular book among hobbyist airplane designers is Daniel P. Raymer's "Simplified Aircraft Design for Homebuilders". If you only read one book about airplane design, make it this one. It has the perfect balance between intuitive explanations with notional diagrams (the way I teach my material) and the bare minimum equations so that things like the required wing size and engine horsepower can be calculated easily, without all the complicated variations covered in college textbooks, just focusing on the practical and typical dimensions that are common among small airplanes that don't fly super fast.

If you are a Boeing employee, then you have access to a terrific document that covers similar ground, explaining (with lots of diagrams, graphs, and other helpful visuals and examples) how airplane performance is calculated and how airplanes are designed to get the desired performance. It's called "Jet Transport Performance Methods". Unsurprisingly, the only problem is that this document doesn't really discuss fighter jets, piston-powered airplanes, or anything else other than commercial jetliners.

Also worth mentioning is a very short, simple, intuitive, and educational book about designing wings, specifically airfoil cross-sections, called "Airfoil Selection". It's by Barnaby Waifan, one of the top aerodynamicists at Northrop Grumman, and creator of the Facetmobile.

Last, but definitely not least: There are three great books that are often used in freshman-year college courses on airplane design and performance. They explore most of the same issues covered in my course and in the simplified books/notes mentioned above, but these college books actually go through the relevant equations, so that all the airplane parameters and performance specs can be actually calculated. For example: the lift force generated by a wing (given its size, curvature, and angle of attack, and the speed and altitude of the airplane), the range of an airplane (given its drag, its weight, its engines' fuel efficiency, and the energy density of its fuel), the takeoff length and climb angle of an airplane (given its thrust, weight, climb speed, and drag)... and how to choose an engine, and a wing shape and size, that allow your airplane to carry some desired payload and meet your requirements for takeoff and landing distances, climb rate, range, and speed. These three books are Richard Shevell's "Fundamentals of Flight", Roger Schaufel's "Elements of Aircraft Preliminary Design", and Daniel Raymer's "Aircraft Design: A Conceptual Approach". If you are not afraid of doing a little math, then check these out. And even if you don't really want to do the math but are interested in getting into aeronautical engineering someday, I'd still recommend that you do read at least one of these books, which are at the foundation of the education of almost every aero engineer today.



There are countless books out there about aviation history. Would you like to learn more about the pioneers who flew before World War I? About the golden age of air-racing, record-breaking, and seaplanes in the 1920s and 30s? About the huge air battles, clever tactics, and innovative German airplanes of World War II? About the edge-of-the-envelope high-speed flying in the 1950s and 1960s? About the development of modern technologies like radio navigation, autopilots, stealth, smart weapons, fly-by-wire, GPS, composite materials, and UAVs? Any one of these stages of history is filled with amazing airplanes and with interesting stories about the people who developed and flew them.

If I had to pick a single one, I would pick "Aviation Year By Year" by Bill Gunston and Sharon Lucas. But some quick online searching about any historical topic - the Wright brothers, the Red Baron, Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Pan Am's "Clipper" flying boats, the air war over Europe and over the Pacific, the early jets and X planes flown by Chuck Yeager and Bob Hoover, or the development of groundbreaking airplanes such as the DC-3, B-36, X-15, XB-70, Blackbird, 747, Concorde, F-117, B-2, or 787 - should return at least a couple of books about that topic.

I am personally most interested in the high-performance airplanes from the 1950s to 1980s, so I like books like Yeager, Forever Flying, Magnesium Overcast, Hypersonic, Valkyrie, SR-71 Revealed, The X Planes, 747, Lockheed Stealth, Inside the Stealth Bomber, and Burt Rutan's Race to Space.



The internet is chock-full of articles, pages, blog posts, full books, and videos of various lengths, talking about the development and testing and flying of all kinds of airplanes. Google, YouTube, and Wikipedia are your friends. Want to learn more about a certain airplane model, a pioneer designer or record-breaking pilot, the history of an air battle or of a whole airplane company, giant seaplanes of the 1940s, the first unrefueled flight around the world, or the transition from wooden structures to metal structures? Try running searches on Google, YouTube, and Wikipedia. (Hint: On YouTube, searching for something followed by "comma long" [e.g. Lockheed, long] will restrict the search only to videos that are over 20 minutes long, i.e. typically more informative and substantial than short clips). Many universities, research institutes, and other organizations have large searchable libraries of books (some of which are for the layperson, such as NASA's excellent collection about experimental proof-of-concept research aircraft) and academic papers.

We live in an amazing time. When I was a kid, the only ways for me to learn about airplanes were to watch the Discovery Channel and Learning Channel and History Channel and National Geographic channel (back when they showed informative content and not just sensationalistic shows about sharks and aliens) and to read aviation magazines and books (which get expensive if you're a teenager). We are now tremendously lucky to have all this and much more available onine: the bulk of those TV shows and documentaries, as well as huge quantities of lectures and interviews, many of those books, pretty much all the articles that ever appeared (and are published today) in aviation magazines, as well as web-only content such as websites, blogs (about everything from Alaska bush-flying to military aviation, airliner accidents, etc.), social media (e.g. Facebook and YouTube content posted by airplane manufacturers big and small, air museums, NASA, airshows and other events, aviation-related branches of the military, aeronautical-themed publications, etc.), and videos, created by people ranging from passionate beginners to experienced experts and "legends" in the world of aviation. So much of that world is at your fingertips! Don't take that for granted. Dive into it!





Copyright 2016 Ⓒ Bernardo Malfitano