An aircraft is a vehicle which is able to fly through the Earth's atmosphere or through any other atmosphere. Rocket vehicles are not aircraft if they are not supported by the surrounding air. All the human activity which surrounds aircraft is called aviation.
Manned aircraft are flown by a pilot. Until the 1960s, unmanned aircraft were called drones. During the 1960s, the U.S. military brought the term remotely piloted vehicle (RPV) into use. More recently the term unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) has become common.
Aerostats use buoyancy to float in the air in much the same way that ships float on the water. They are characterized by one or more large gasbags or canopies, filled with a relatively low density gas such as helium, hydrogen or hot air, which is less dense than the surrounding air. When the weight of this is added to the weight of the aircraft structure, it adds up to the same weight as the air that the craft displaces.
Originally a balloon was any aerostat, while the term airship was used for large powered aircraft designs—usually fixed-wing—though none had yet been built. The advent of powered balloons, called dirigible balloons, and later of rigid hulls allowing a great increase in size, began to change the way these words were used. Huge powered aerostats, characterized by a rigid outer framework and separate aerodynamic skin surrounding the gas bags, were produced, the Zeppelins being the largest and most famous. There were still no aeroplanes or non-rigid balloons large enough to be called airships, so "airship" came to be synonymous with these monsters. Then several accidents, such as the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, led to the demise of these airships. Nowadays a "balloon" is an unpowered aerostat, whilst an "airship" is a powered one.
A powered, steerable aerostat is called a dirigible. Sometimes this term is applied only to non-rigid balloons, and sometimes dirigible balloon is regarded as the definition of an airship (which may then be rigid or non-rigid). Non-rigid dirigibles are characterized by a moderately aerodynamic gasbag with stabilizing fins at the back. These soon became known as blimps. During the Second World War, this shape was widely adopted for tethered balloons; in windy weather this both reduces the strain on the tether and stabilizes the balloon. The nickname blimp was adopted along with the shape. In modern times any small dirigible or airship is called a blimp, though a blimp may be unpowered as well as powered.
Aerodynamic lift is the most common, with aeroplanes being kept in the air by the forward movement of wings, and rotorcraft by spinning wing-shaped rotors sometimes called rotary wings. A wing is a flat, horizontal surface, usually shaped in cross-section as an aerofoil. To fly, the wing must move forwards through the air; this movement of air over the aerofoil shape deflects air downward to create an equal and opposite upward force, called lift, according to Newton's third law of motion. A flexible wing is a wing made of fabric or thin sheet material, often stretched over a rigid frame. A kite is tethered to the ground and relies on the speed of the wind over its wings, which may be flexible or rigid, fixed or rotary.
With powered lift, the aircraft directs its engine thrust vertically downwards.
The initialism VTOL (vertical take off and landing) is applied to aircraft that can take off and land vertically. Most are rotorcraft. Others, such as the Hawker Siddeley Harrier, take off and land vertically using powered lift and transfer to aerodynamic lift in steady flight. Similarly, STOL stands for short take off and landing. Some VTOL aircraft often operate in a short take off/vertical landing regime known as STOVL.
A pure rocket is not usually regarded as an aerodyne, because it does not depend on the air for its lift (and can even fly into space), however many aerodynamic lift vehicles have been powered or assisted by rocket motors. Rocket-powered missiles which obtain aerodynamic lift at very high speed due to airflow over their bodies, are a marginal case.
Aeroplanes or airplanes are technically called fixed-wing aircraft.
The forerunner of the aeroplane is the kite. Whereas an aeroplane relies on its forward speed to create airflow over the wings, a kite is tethered to the ground and relies on the wind blowing over its wings to provide lift. Kites were the first kind of aircraft to fly, and were invented in China around 500 BC. Much aerodynamic research was done with kites before test aircraft, wind tunnels and computer modelling programs became available.
A variable geometry aircraft can change its wing configuration during flight.
Seaplanes are aircraft that land on water, and they differ in that some have the bottom of its fuselage shaped hydrodynamically and sits directly on the water when at rest (the flying boat while others have two or more floats attached below the rest of the aircraft so that the fuselage remains clear of the water at all times (floatplanes).
Some people consider wing-in-ground-effect vehicles to be aeroplanes, others do not. These craft "fly" close to the surface of the ground or water. An example is the Russian ekranoplan (nicknamed the "Caspian Sea Monster"). Man-powered aircraft also rely on ground effect to remain airborne, but this is only because they are so underpowered - the airframe is theoretically capable of flying much higher. (Hovercraft are not considered to be aircraft, since they rely wholly on the pressure of air on the ground beneath, and have no other lift mechanism).
Rotorcraft, or rotary-wing aircraft, use a spinning rotor with aerofoil section blades (a rotary wing) to provide lift. Types include helicopters, autogyros and various hybrids such as gyrodynes and compound rotorcraft.
Helicopters have powered rotors. The rotor is driven (directly or indirectly) by an engine and pushes air downwards to create lift. By tilting the rotor forwards, the downwards flow is tilted backwards, producing thrust for forward flight.
Autogyros or gyroplanes have unpowered rotors, with a separate power plant to provide thrust. The rotor is tilted backwards. As the autogyro moves forward, air blows upwards through it, making it spin.(cf. Autorotation) This spinning dramatically increases the speed of airflow over the rotor, to provide lift. Juan de la Cierva (a Spanish civil engineer) used the product name autogiro, and Bensen used gyrocopter. Rotor kites, such as the Focke Achgelis Fa 330 are unpowered autogyros, which must be towed by a tether to give them forward ground speed or else be tether-anchored to a static anchor in a high-wind situation for kited flight.
Gyrodynes are a form of helicopter, where forward thrust is obtained from a separate propulsion device rather than from tilting the rotor. The definition of a 'gyrodyne' has changed over the years, sometimes including equivalent autogyro designs. The most important characteristic is that in forward flight air does not flow significantly either up or down through the rotor disc but primarily across it. The Heliplane is a similar idea.
Compound rotorcraft have wings which provide some or all of the lift in forward flight. Compound helicopters and compound autogyros have been built, and some forms of gyroplane may be referred to as compound gyroplanes. Tiltrotor aircraft (such as the V-22 Osprey) have their rotors horizontal for vertical flight, and pivot the rotors vertically like a propeller for forward flight. The Coleopter had a cylindrical wing forming a duct around the rotor. On the ground it sat on its tail, and took off and landed vertically like a helicopter. The whole aircraft would then have tilted forward to fly as a propeller-driven aeroplane using the duct as a wing (though this transition was never achieved in practice.)
Some rotorcraft have reaction-powered rotors with gas jets at the tips, but most have one or more lift rotors powered from engine-driven shafts.
Balloons drift with the wind, though normally the pilot can control the altitude either by heating the air or by releasing ballast, giving some directional control (since the wind direction changes with altitude). A wing-shaped hybrid balloon can glide directionally when rising or falling; but a spherically-shaped balloon does not have such directional control.
Kites are tethered to the ground or other object (fixed or mobile) or other means that maintains tension in the kite line; and rely on virtual or real wind blowing over and under them to generate lift and drag. Kytoons are balloon kites that are shaped and tethered to obtain kiting deflections, and can be lighter-than-air, neutrally buoyant, or heavier-than air.
Gliders gain their initial flying speed from some launch mechanism, and then gain additional energy from gravity and from updrafts such as thermal currents. Takeoff may be by launching forwards and downwards from a high location, or by pulling into the air on a towline, by a ground-based winch or vehicle, or by a powered "tug" aircraft. For a glider to maintain its forward air speed and lift, it must descend in relation to the air (but not necessarily in relation to the ground). The first practical, controllable example was designed and built by the British scientist and pioneer George Cayley who is universally recognised as the first aeronautical engineer.
A propeller comprises a set of small, wing-like aerofoils set around a central hub which spins on an axis aligned in the direction of travel. Spinning the propeller creates aerodynamic lift, or thrust, in a forward direction. A contra-prop arrangement has a second propeller close behind the first one on the same axis, which rotates in the opposite direction.
A tractor design mounts the propeller in front of the power source, and a pusher design mounts it behind. Although the pusher design allows cleaner airflow over the wing, tractor configuration is more common because it allows cleaner airflow to the propeller and provides a better weight distribution.
A variation on the propeller is to use many broad blades to create a fan. Such fans are traditionally surrounded by a ring-shaped fairing or duct, as ducted fans.
Many kinds of power plant have been used to drive propellers.
The earliest designs used man power to give dirigible balloons some degree of control, and go back to Jean-Pierre Blanchard in 1784. Attempts to achieve heavier-than-air manpowered flight did not succeed until Paul MacCready's Gossamer Condor in 1977.
The first powered flight was made in a steam-powered dirigible by Henri Giffard in 1852. Attempts to marry a practical lightweight steam engine to a practical fixed-wing airframe did not succeed until much later, by which time the internal combustion engine was already dominant.
From the first powered aeroplane flight by the Wright brothers until World War II, propellers turned by the internal combustion piston engine were virtually the only type of propulsion system in use. (See also: Aircraft engine.) The piston engine is still used in the majority of smaller aircraft produced, since it is efficient at the lower altitudes and slower speeds suited to propellers.
Turbine engines need not be used as jets (see below), but may be geared to drive a propeller in the form of a turboprop. Modern helicopters also typically use turbine engines to power the rotor. Turbines provide more power for less weight than piston engines, and are better suited to small-to-medium size aircraft or larger, slow-flying types. Some turboprop designs (see below) mount the propeller directly on an engine shaft, and are called propfans.
Since the 1940s, propellers and propfans with swept tips or curved "scimitar-shaped" blades have been studied for use in high-speed applications so as to delay the onset of shockwaves, in similar manner to wing sweepback, where the blade tips approach the speed of sound. The Airbus A400M turboprop transport aircraft is expected to provide the first production example: note that it is not a propfan because the propellers are not mounted direct on the engine shaft but are driven through reduction gearing.
Other less common power sources include:
Air-breathing jet engines provide thrust by taking in air, burning it with fuel in a combustion chamber, and accelerating the exhaust rearwards so that it ejects at high speed. The reaction against this acceleration provides the engine thrust.
Jet engines can provide much higher thrust than propellers, and are naturally efficient at higher altitudes, being able to operate above . They are also much more fuel-efficient than rockets. Consequently, nearly all high-speed and high-altitude aircraft use jet engines.
The early turbojet and modern turbofan use a spinning turbine to create airflow for takeoff and to provide thrust. Many, mostly in military aviation, use afterburners which inject extra fuel into the exhaust.
Use of a turbine is not absolutely necessary: other designs include the crude pulse jet, high-speed ramjet and the still-experimental supersonic-combustion ramjet or scramjet. These designs require an existing airflow to work and cannot work when stationary, so they must be launched by a catapult or rocket booster, or dropped from a mother ship. The bypass turbofan engines of the Lockheed SR-71 were a hybrid design - the aircraft took off and landed in jet turbine configuration, and for high-speed flight the turbine was bypassed and the afterburners used to create a ramjet.
The motorjet was a very early design which used a piston engine in place of the combustion chamber, similar to a turbocharged piston engine except that the thrust is derived from the turbine rather than the crankshaft. It was soon superseded by the turbojet and remained a curiosity.
The rotor of a Helicopter may, like a propeller, be powered by a variety of methods such as an internal-combustion engine or jet turbine. Tip jets, fed by gases passing along hollow rotor blades from a centrally-mounted engine, have been experimented with. Attempts have even been made to mount engines directly on the rotor tips.
Helicopters obtain forward propulsion by angling the rotor disc so that a proportion of its lift is directed forwards to provide thrust.
Other supporting roles are carried out by specialist patrol, search and rescue, reconnaissance, observation, transport, training and Tanker aircraft among others.
Many civil aircraft, both fixed wing and rotary, have been produced in separate models for military use, such as the civil Douglas DC-3 airliner, which became the military C-47/C-53/R4D transport in the U.S. military and the "Dakota" in the UK and the Commonwealth. Even the small fabric-covered two-seater Piper J3 Cub had a military version, the L-4 liaison, observation and trainer aircraft. Gliders and balloons have also been used as military aircraft; for example, balloons were used for observation during the American Civil War and World War I, and cargo gliders were used during World War II to land troops.
Civil aircraft divide into commercial and general types, however in practice there is some overlap.
Within general aviation, there is a further distinction between private aircraft (where the pilot is not paid for time or expenses) and commercial aircraft (where the pilot is paid by a client or employer). Private aircraft are usually light passenger, business, or recreational types. Usually the pilot owns or rents the aircraft. Commercial types in general aviation may be put to a wide range of tasks, such as flight training, pipeline surveying, passenger and freight transport, policing, crop dusting, and medevac flights.
Piston-powered propeller aircraft (single-engine or twin-engine) are especially common for both private and commercial general aviation, but even private pilots occasionally own and operate helicopters like the Bell JetRanger or turboprops like the Beechcraft King Air. Business jets are typically flown by commercial pilots, although there is a new generation of small jets arriving soon for private pilots. Another small but important class of private aircraft are the historical warbirds.
The formal designation of "experimental aircraft" also includes other types which are "not certified for commercial applications", including one-off modifications of existing aircraft such as the modified Boeing 747 which NASA uses to ferry the space shuttle from landing site to launch site, and aircraft homebuilt by amateurs for their own personal use.
A model aircraft is a small unmanned type made to fly for fun, for static display, for aerodynamic research (cf Reynolds number) or for other purposes. A scale model is a replica of some larger design.
The history of aircraft development divides broadly into five eras: