February 19th, 2020


Things I tell kids when I walk around an airplane

In honor of engineers week I got to give factory tours to girl scout trips. I love it SO MUCH! And I figure, since I mentioned in my profile that I write about airplanes, maybe I should occasionally write about them.

When I take kids around the airplanes I show them little things. Because they look at an airplane, and all they see is the big thing... wings. fuselage. seats. where do you sit, how does it fly? and I want them to know that the fun of engineering is breaking it up into a million tiny parts, and every part has a job. Nobody is an expert on an entire airplane. I really mean that.

And wings are GREAT, learning about Bernoulli's principle and aerodynamics and airflow but hell... even when I get into THAT I like to show the weird little metal things that get added to an airplane to help air flow the right way. winglets and strakes and dorsals.

my point is I do not like to get into Bernoulli's principle when I show kids an airplane. that's a big thing, and it's hard to tell what part you play in the greater scientific principle and history of airplanes. it won't tell you the whole story anyway. you never know the whole story looking at the big things.

just like right now, you are a small thing, but you are important. and aren't you more interesting than the big class picture or whatever you're in? to learn about something, you focus in.

A pitot tube sticks out, a shiny metal straw that air blows into and there's an instrument in the cockpit that says how fast you're going. It's heated so ice doesn't build up on it.

Speaking of ice, it's very dangerous. It weighs the airplane down, messes with the airflow, it can make an airplane crash. So we have three main ways of getting rid of it in the air. We can heat our leading edges. We can make them with inflatable boots that blow up like balloons to break it off. Or we can make tiny holes ice-melting fluid to seep out.

On the backs of the wings and stabilizers you see the flight controls - ailerons to roll side to side, rudder to turn left and right, elevator to pitch the nose up and down, trim tabs to help hold them in place when you just want to stay at one attitude (and what's attitude)

All over the fuselage we've got antennas! GPS, radios, internet for passengers, transponders for airplanes to talk to each other and make sure they're far enough away from each other, radio altimeters that bounce signals off the ground so you know exactly how high up you are.

And lights - Big lights to help you see while taxing, smaller ones to be on all the time in the sky so other airplanes recognize you. left wingtip has a red light and the right wingtip has a green one. This is so you can always tell which way an airplane is crossing in front of you in the sky, or you can tell if it's going towards or away from you.

By this time I've usually exhausted the attention span of a first grader in an airplane factory, and I'm not sure anything has sunk in. They're always all over the place, looking around, so we take questions, talk about factory safety, explain the different jobs you can do, who knows where the talk will lead. I'd love them to remember something. Anything! But even when I try to make the stories small and relatable, there's a lot going on, and tomorrow is another day full of learning for them. I do my best.