What You Probably did not Know about Aircraft


Ranging from the private-jet-looking Bombardier CRJ to the mighty A380-800, and the presidential Boeing 747, there is a world of jets and airlines. It has been a long time since most of us have travelled overseas on an aircraft, but when you do again next time, you can look out for a number of things.

Plane Trivia

Firstly, ever wondered why the lights on a plane dim when you get ready for landing? It is not to force you to take a nap or have a rest, but instead to let your eyes adjust to the darkness, just in case there is an emergency. Furthermore, the emergency exit signals and signs will look brighter in the darkness.

In addition, if you’re observant, you will realise that random sound signals go off in the plane for no apparent reason. However, they might be signals for flight attendants to run certain steps, like serving you meals and getting the cabin ready for takeoff or landing. Next time you go on a plane, you can try and observe the changes that happen after each chime goes off! 

Some people will ask why plane windows are always round. Can’t they be squarish? Well, for your safety, no. Back in the 1950s there were cases of accidents caused by squarish windows, as there would be a lot of pressure buildup around the windows due to the sharp edges.

Another question regarding your safety might be how the plane is going to survive a storm, especially a lightning strike, since they might fly into or near storm clouds. Though there are actually cases of storms affecting the planes’ safety and performance, don’t worry about lightning strikes! Modern planes now are laid out with wire casing that cover the entire plane and separate the outside from the inside. The wire meshing will prevent the electricity from reaching you. 

And if you read up more about plane accidents, you will find out about birdstrikes. Birdstrikes are cases where birds hit the plane, and can potentially cause damage. For small planes, birdstrikes can cause quite some damage, as there are cases of birds causing windshields or windows to break. Thankfully, single-engine propeller planes fly low and are not subjected to much danger of cabin depressurisation even if windshields or windows are damaged. Most birdstrikes also do not cause severe damage to large aircrafts, like the passenger flights you go on. 

Speaking of cabin depressurisation, high-flying aircraft now have pressurised cabins, as the pressure 10,000 metres in the air is low and air is thin. Thus, the plane engines pump air into the cabin, working alongside a controller to maintain cabin pressure and enough air for you to breathe. That is also why we have oxygen masks. If cabin depressurisation happens, the amount of oxygen the masks will provide you will provide the pilot enough time to dive towards an acceptable attitude so that there will be sufficient air to breathe.

When an aircraft touches down, the spoilers come up and there is a roaring noise. Observant window-sitters will see that the engines split up in the middle and a gap forms, while the plane drastically slows down. What is happening is that the aircraft engines are providing reverse thrust (pushback) to brake the plane, as the air comes out from that gap towards the front.

A Boeing-747 with reverse thrusters activated, pushing back

You might also remember seeing the airplane tug, a tractor-like vehicle used to push an airplane out of the jetway terminal at the airport. If engines can pushback, why is there need for a tug? Even though engines are technically capable of pushing back on their own, doing so while at a jetway terminal is potentially dangerous, as dirt and other debris may roll into the engines, damaging them. They also might hit the terminal, causing damage and safety hazards. Thus, using a tug is more efficient and safe to minimize damage and injury.

aircraft tug pulling an aircraft
Airplane Tug
Photo by Max Walter on Pexels.com

The Flying Fatties 

If you have seen or been on this four-engine, double-decked giant, take a moment to admire this aircraft. I’m talking about the Airbus A380. A modern airliner, with a maximum certified capacity of 850 passengers in the A380-800, this aircraft should wow you. With four Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines specially designed to power the 380, it can reach the speed of Mach 0.85, fly for 15,000 kilometres and normally accommodate 400 to 500 passengers.

Some aircraft are surprisingly old, but have huge impacts on modern aviation. Take the Boeing-747 for example. It started service in 1970 and is still flying. Some airlines have already retired the 747 and others are retiring them or planning to, but even the American presidential jet is the 747. And that particular plane is 30 years old. Now, the approximate cost of one presidential jet is 4 to 5 billion US dollars. But be aware that Air Force One jets are the military version, the VC-25. 

An Air Force One Boeing-747(VC-25)

It is specially reserved for the president, so there is no way Boeing will build a VC-25 for you.

And the president’s security is well taken care of. The reason you always see two Air Force Ones in operation is because one of them contains the president, while the other is just acting as a decoy. But even spotting the planes (with radar) is already very difficult as they are laid out with electronic countermeasures. And for all we know, it could have flares and other missile countermeasures for their protection.

With the last order of the 747-8 being delivered this year, Boeing will officially close the 747’s production. Due to its contributions to modern aviation, the 747 is known as the Queen of the Skies. With airlines ordering over 1,500 747s during its whole production history, and Qantas Airlines once being an only-747 fleet, this legendary aircraft will surely be missed.

Smoke in the Air!

If you watch military movies or play warfare games, you sometimes hear the pilot say “fox 3!” when they fire a missile. The name of the missile is not fox 3, but fox 3 signals the launch of a radar-guided missile, e.g. AIM-120 AMRAAMS(Advanced Medium Range Air-to-air Missile), AIM-54 Phoenix, R-77s and PL-15s. 

An AIM-120 AMRAAM on what seems to be an F-16
An R-77, the Russian counterpart to the AIM-120

Fox 2 signals the launch of a infrared-guided missile, like the AIM-7 Sparrow while fox 1 signals the launch of an semi-radar-infrared-guided missile. Do note (Video gamers out there!) that if you are playing a good realistic game, radar-guided missiles cannot be misguided by launching flares. You’ll have to perform evasive manoeuvres or launch chaffs.

There are also radar jammers to jam an enemy’s radar so he cannot detect and lock onto you in BVR (Beyond Visual Range) combat with a radar-guided missile nor detect you. Another thing video games sometimes mess up is the load that one fighter jet can carry. There is no way one jet can carry 2,000 missiles and you can keep launching endlessly. That is not realistic. 

Notice how this game allows this F-14 to carry an insane NINETY-THREE missiles, as seen in the right-hand list of weapons

There are two ways that you can locate an enemy/target aircraft. The first way is through a radar. Radars in scanning mode scan in front of the aircraft to discover enemies. Little information is known here. In track mode, however, much more information can be obtained, including the target’s heading (0-359 degrees), its velocity, closure rate (the velocity at which you are approaching each other) and even sometimes the type of aircraft.

An F-15 radar

The second way is through a radar warning receiver (RWR). RWRs warn the pilot of radars being pointed at the aircraft to discover potential enemies. RWRs only give the pilot the bearing of the enemy and maybe the type of aircraft. That is why the scenes of stealth fighters locking on, firing missiles and escaping without the enemies knowing is illogical. The enemies’ RWRs would probably have already picked up the frequencies.

An RWR detecting several targets, the ‘29’ signals a Mig-29 fighter, and is enclosed in a diamond to show top priority target

Even though fighter jets have their own radars, many don’t realise that there are ‘eyes’ behind the fighters to direct them. These aircraft are known as Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C), sometimes written as ‘AWAC’ for easy pronunciation. These aircraft are basically planes specially dedicated to detecting aircraft, and some are civilian jets configured to accommodate a radar and several crew. These aircraft are so important that most aircraft carriers host these too, like the E-2 Hawkeye aboard US carriers. However there are also helicopter AEW&C that are in service aboard carriers that have no catapults to launch such large aircraft.

The Future of Zero Emission Air Travel

As the world faces an environmental crisis and there is talk about sustainability, Airbus has pushed out its zero emission aircraft, called the ZEROe. It will have 2 hydrogen propulsion engines, and even though it won’t be as fast and capable as the conventional airplanes now, it will not do harm to the environment while providing comfortable travel. The plan is to release these planes in 2035, which is surprisingly fast.

In the future, you may see the pancake-shaped Blended-Wing Body, a new concept by Airbus. However there are also problems with this. Modern electrolysis, even though most efficient, is not enough to even compensate for the electricity needed to produce the hydrogen. It is likely that future electrolysis will need to become even more efficient or other energies will have to be relied on to produce the hydrogen. 

The pancake-shaped Airbus ZEROe

It is needless to say that there will be game-changers in the evolution of aircraft, whether it is military aircraft that will hold air superiority on the battlefield, or newest modern airliners that will dominate the skies. Perhaps one day when you go to the airport, you will remember the evolution of aircraft and those which we now call modern.