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Why Does An Aircraft Takeoff or Land In That Direction?


Why Does An Aircraft Takeoff or Land In That Direction

As you wait in the airport terminal for your turn to board, you’ve probably looked out those large windows, watching the planes and air traffic personnel as they go about their routines. You’ve probably noticed that no matter what direction the flight is supposed to go, it seems like all the planes are taking off in the same direction. But have you wondered why?


To understand why planes takeoff and land in a certain direction, we must first understand the basics of flight. If you draw a basic free-body diagram of a plane in flight, you’d draw four vectors: thrust, drag, lift, and weight. Thrust is the forward force generated by the aircraft engines and accelerates the plane forward. Drag is the backwards force of air that slows the plane. Lift is the upward force generated when air passes over and under the wings at a high rate. And weight is the gravitational force pulling the plane down. Planes can only fly when thrust is greater than drag and lift and weight are equal.


Once the plane reaches significant speeds and gets enough airflow over and under the aircraft wings, the pilot pulls back on the controls, and the plane takes off. While the plane can takeoff in the same direction as the wind, pilots normally takeoff in the opposite direction and redirect when they’re airborne. Going in the opposite direction of the windflow helps the aircraft get additional lift, which allows the takeoff distance to get shorter and faster, which saves on fuel.


Landing also benefits from opposing windflow. Windflow in the opposite direction of the plane adds to the drag force. This allows the plane to have a lower approach speed, which means braking is easier. Windflow in the same direction of the plane adds to the thrust, meaning that the plane has to approach the runway at a higher speed, which requires a longer runway to allow for safer braking. Not all airports have that luxury. So, when they can, air traffic control and pilots will always coordinate to change the direction of landing and takeoff in order to go opposite the windflow.


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