By Phillip J. Milano
Never fear. In the case of flying, what goes up usually does not want to come down. At least, not in a bad way.
So says Brian Lane, assistant professor of physics at Jacksonville University, who presented his research titled “Yes, the Plane DOES Want to Stay in the Air!” on Friday, March 16, at the annual JU Faculty Symposium.
Using computerized simulation graphics and an entertaining audience participation exercise, Lane showed how planes generally don’t tend to plummet or soar out of control, barring an unmitigated disaster.
Instead, they seem to “want” to maintain their trajectory – even if their speed, lift or drag gets out of whack.
Lane, who teaches aviation physics and co-authored the textbook “Introductory Physics with Aviation Applications,” had some personal reasons for wanting to prove his assumptions.
“My first two years teaching, I was nervous about flying,” he told the audience of students, faculty and staff in the Davis College of Business conference rooms. “I had this nagging sense that we know because of gravity, things tend to fall down. But I wanted to be comfortable flying, as well as teaching this course to my students.”
It turns out part of Lane’s anxiety was brought on by a heart arrhythmia that has since been corrected.
The other part? That got fixed with research.
Lane plugged in different numbers related to thrust, drag, lift, weight and speed to various formulas to determine that, even when something like speed changes significantly and a plane begins to dive or soar, eventually it will adjust back to an optimal “cruising flight” – its optimal speed with a flatter trajectory.
Lane put audience members through a “telephone game” story exercise. Participants broke into groups and alternately wrote sentences or drew pictures based on viewing only what the group member directly before them had written or drawn. The idea was to see how the initial sentence would change over time.
While the story did change, by the end a “constant” theme of some type could always be found throughout the changes that occurred.
The idea was to show how something that begins at a stable fixed point works to return to that stable fixed point, if possible. The game had audience members nodding as they “got” the idea.
Kevin Barth, a freshman in aviation management and flight operations who takes Lane’s course, said the presentation was similar to Lane’s classes.
"It’s not your mom and pop’s physics lesson,” Barth said. “He integrates technology and hands-on learning in the group. It keeps the students engaged.”
So much so that it’s made Barth “almost” consider changing his major to physics.
“His class gives you those Eureka, ‘A-ha’ moments. It gets us exposed to new ideas.”
Lane said afterward that his goal is to get students comfortable with the sometimes complicated concepts involved in physics.
“What you want is for them to use the correct terms once they are out there as pilots, either with the public or with others in the industry,” he said. “You want them to develop fluency with the terms. To speak the language.”