In-Flight Mechanics Experiments


Students conducted physics experiments aboard a small airplane piloted by the instructor in order to better understand aerodynamics.


  • To provide students with an understanding of the principles underlying heavier-than-air flight through hands-on experience.
  • To introduce students to broader engineering and physics concepts through the survey and application of aerodynamic principles.
  • To interest students in engineering and science fields by providing them with connections between theory and real-life practice.

Class: January@GSAS 2013: Introduction to Flight

Introduction/Background: This three-day course offered during winter break was designed for undergraduate and graduate students to apply their physics knowledge (classical mechanics in particular) to real-life applications. Students joined the instructor for a short flight in a four-seater airplane. They conducted physics experiments while on board the plane to understand the principles of heavier-than-air flight. For more information, read the Harvard Gazette article on the course, here.


Access to a small airplane and pilot

For experiments: yarn, tape, spring balances, standard weights, camera, camcorder, protractor, compass, GPS, airspeed indicator, calculator.

Worksheet (attached)



  • Before the activity, the students attended two 3-hour long in-class sessions to learn about the physics and principles of human flight.
  • Small radio control (RC) airplanes and helicopters were used to demonstrate the practical aspects of aerodynamics.
  • The in-flight experiments were described to the students in the class before the day of the activities. The students received a handout describing the in-flight experiments. The handout had blank fields to record observations and data. The instructor also gave a detailed briefing before the the in-flight experiments explaining preparations and  logistics for the activities.

During Activity

  • The instructor and the students met at the Beverly Airport early on Saturday morning. The Beverly Flight Center provided a classroom for a briefing on the day's activities. The instructor gave a short review to the students on the forces acting on an airplane and on the control of the airplane's movement during flight. A model airplane was used as a prop to visualize and reinforce the material presented.
  • After the morning briefing, the students prepared a four-seat airplane single-engine airplane (a Piper Archer) for the in-flight experiments by taping short pieces of yarn on the wings. These pieces of yarn were used for airflow visualization over the wings and the detection of aerodynamic stalls. Then they attached spring balances, weights and cameras inside the plane for the experiments.
  • The students helped with the pre-flight inspection of the airplane and learned hands-on how the controls and indicators on the airplane worked.
  • The students were divided into groups for the in-flight experiments. Each group consisted of two or three students.
  • The instructor, who is a private pilot, took the groups up in the air over Beverly and over the ocean at Crane Beach (Ipswich). There he executed several maneuvers (climbs, descents, turns at different angles, stalls with and without flaps, and control perturbations) while the students observed the airflow over the wings and made measurements of airspeed, bank angle, G-forces, and number of oscillations. Students recorded results of the experiments on their handout.
  • The student sitting in the front passenger seat got the chance to control the airplane and observe the effect of control forces on the attitude of the airplane.
  • During the activity, students compared their measurements and observations with the theory they learned during the classroom sessions.

After the activity: The students gathered in the cafe next to the airport to discuss and compare their experience and observations. The instructor joined them after the last group finished their flight and had a discussion. Students were also given an online survey to evaluate the course and give feedback on what they enjoyed and what should change.


Kosar’s advice to other instructors is “to draw on her/his areas of interest/passion outside of her/his profession and create activities to enhance the learning experience of the students. In my opinion, the key is to ask the question "how can I utilize these other skills of mine and incorporate them into my teaching to provide inspiration, motivation, excitement and fun to my students?"

Students who took the course reported enjoying it immensely and learning a lot, whether they were pursuing a career in engineering or were social science majors just interested in learning more. As one student wrote,  “I will never look at planes in the same way. Whenever I fly home, I will now appreciate the forces, such as lift and drag, involved in keeping us in the air. The experiments done in the airplane at the end of the course were especially valuable to reinforce the principles we learned in class. Introduction to Flight was the highlight of my Wintersession.”

exercises.pdf175 KB
harvard gazette.pdf890 KB