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An aircraft is a vehicle that is able to fly by gaining support from the air. It counters the force of gravity by using either static lift or the dynamic lift of an airfoil, or, in a few cases, direct downward thrust from its engines. Common examples of aircraft include airplanes, helicopters, airships (including blimps), gliders, paramotors, and hot air balloons.
The human activity that surrounds aircraft is called aviation. The science of aviation, including designing and building aircraft, is called aeronautics. Crewed aircraft are flown by an onboard pilot, whereas unmanned aerial vehicles may be remotely controlled or self-controlled by onboard computers. Aircraft may be classified by different criteria, such as lift type, aircraft propulsion (if any), usage and others.
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 cells 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.
Small hot-air balloons, called sky lanterns, were first invented in ancient China prior to the 3rd century BC and used primarily in cultural celebrations, and were only the second type of aircraft to fly, the first being kites, which were first invented in ancient China over two thousand years ago (see Han Dynasty).
Aerodynamic lift involving wings is the most common, with fixed-wing aircraft 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, air must flow over the wing and generate lift. 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 downward. V/STOL aircraft, such as the Harrier jump jet and Lockheed Martin F-35B take off and land vertically using powered lift and transfer to aerodynamic lift in steady flight.
The forerunner of the fixed-wing aircraft is the kite. Whereas a fixed-wing aircraft 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.
The first heavier-than-air craft capable of controlled free-flight were gliders. A glider designed by George Cayley carried out the first true manned, controlled flight in 1853. The first powered and controllable fixed-wing aircraft (the airplane or aeroplane) was invented by Wilbur and Orville Wright.
Rotorcraft, or rotary-wing aircraft, use a spinning rotor with aerofoil cross-section blades (a rotary wing) to provide lift. Types include helicopters, autogyros, and various hybrids such as gyrodynes and compound rotorcraft.
Compound rotorcraft have wings that provide some or all of the lift in forward flight. They are nowadays classified as powered lift types and not as rotorcraft. Tiltrotor aircraft (such as the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey), tiltwing, tail-sitter, and coleopter aircraft have their rotors/propellers horizontal for vertical flight and vertical for forward flight.
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The largest aircraft by dimensions and volume (as of 2016) is the 302 ft (92 m) long British Airlander 10, a hybrid blimp, with helicopter and fixed-wing features, and reportedly capable of speeds up to 90 mph (140 km/h; 78 kn), and an airborne endurance of two weeks with a payload of up to 22,050 lb (10,000 kg).
The largest civilian airplanes, apart from the above-noted An-225 and An-124, are the Airbus Beluga cargo transport derivative of the Airbus A300 jet airliner, the Boeing Dreamlifter cargo transport derivative of the Boeing 747 jet airliner/transport (the 747-200B was, at its creation in the 1960s, the heaviest aircraft ever built, with a maximum weight of over 400 t (880,000 lb)), and the double-decker Airbus A380 "super-jumbo" jet airliner (the world's largest passenger airliner).
The fastest recorded powered aircraft flight and fastest recorded aircraft flight of an air-breathing powered aircraft was of the NASA X-43A Pegasus, a scramjet-powered, hypersonic, lifting body experimental research aircraft, at Mach 9.68 or 6,755 mph (10,870 km/h) on 16 November 2004.
Gliders are heavier-than-air aircraft that do not employ propulsion once airborne. Take-off may be by launching forward and downward from a high location, or by pulling into the air on a tow-line, either 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). Many gliders can "soar", i.e., gain height from updrafts such as thermal currents. The first practical, controllable example was designed and built by the British scientist and pioneer George Cayley, whom many recognise as the first aeronautical engineer. Common examples of gliders are sailplanes, hang gliders and paragliders.
Kites are aircraft that are tethered to the ground or other object (fixed or mobile) that maintains tension in the tether or kite line; they rely on virtual or real wind blowing over and under them to generate lift and drag. Kytoons are balloon-kite hybrids that are shaped and tethered to obtain kiting deflections, and can be lighter-than-air, neutrally buoyant, or heavier-than-air.
Powered aircraft have one or more onboard sources of mechanical power, typically aircraft engines although rubber and manpower have also been used. Most aircraft engines are either lightweight reciprocating engines or gas turbines. Engine fuel is stored in tanks, usually in the wings but larger aircraft also have additional fuel tanks in the fuselage.
Propeller aircraft use one or more propellers (airscrews) to create thrust in a forward direction. The propeller is usually mounted in front of the power source in tractor configuration but can be mounted behind in pusher configuration. Variations of propeller layout include contra-rotating propellers and ducted fans.
Many kinds of power plant have been used to drive propellers. Early airships used man power or steam engines. The more practical internal combustion piston engine was used for virtually all fixed-wing aircraft until World War II and is still used in many smaller aircraft. Some types use turbine engines to drive a propeller in the form of a turboprop or propfan. Human-powered flight has been achieved, but has not become a practical means of transport. Unmanned aircraft and models have also used power sources such as electric motors and rubber bands.
Different jet engine configurations include the turbojet and turbofan, sometimes with the addition of an afterburner. Those with no rotating turbomachinery include the pulsejet and ramjet. These mechanically simple engines produce no thrust when stationary, so the aircraft must be launched to flying speed using a catapult, like the V-1 flying bomb, or a rocket, for example. Other engine types include the motorjet and the dual-cycle Pratt & Whitney J58.
Compared to engines using propellers, jet engines can provide much higher thrust, higher speeds and, above about 40,000 ft (12,000 m), greater efficiency. They are also much more fuel-efficient than rockets. As a consequence nearly all large, high-speed or high-altitude aircraft use jet engines.
Aircraft are designed according to many factors such as customer and manufacturer demand, safety protocols and physical and economic constraints. For many types of aircraft the design process is regulated by national airworthiness authorities.
The approach to structural design varies widely between different types of aircraft. Some, such as paragliders, comprise only flexible materials that act in tension and rely on aerodynamic pressure to hold their shape. A balloon similarly relies on internal gas pressure, but may have a rigid basket or gondola slung below it to carry its payload. Early aircraft, including airships, often employed flexible doped aircraft fabric covering to give a reasonably smooth aeroshell stretched over a rigid frame. Later aircraft employed semi-monocoque techniques, where the skin of the aircraft is stiff enough to share much of the flight loads. In a true monocoque design there is no internal structure left.
Heavier-than-air types are characterised by one or more wings and a central fuselage. The fuselage typically also carries a tail or empennage for stability and control, and an undercarriage for takeoff and landing. Engines may be located on the fuselage or wings. On a fixed-wing aircraft the wings are rigidly attached to the fuselage, while on a rotorcraft the wings are attached to a rotating vertical shaft. Smaller designs sometimes use flexible materials for part or all of the structure, held in place either by a rigid frame or by air pressure. The fixed parts of the structure comprise the airframe.
The source of motive power for an aircraft is normally called the powerplant, and includes engine or motor, propeller or rotor, (if any), jet nozzles and thrust reversers (if any), and accessories essential to the functioning of the engine or motor (e.g.: starter, ignition system, intake system, exhaust system, fuel system, lubrication system, engine cooling system, and engine controls).