Forces Acting on the Aircraft – Thrust

Thrust, drag, lift, and weight are forces that act upon all aircraft in flight. Understanding how these forces work and knowing how to control them with the use of power and flight controls are essential to flight. This chapter discusses the aerodynamics of flight—how design, weight, load factors, and gravity affect an aircraft during flight maneuvers.


The four forces acting on an aircraft in straight-and-level, unaccelerated flight are thrust, drag, lift, and weight. They are defined as follows:

  • Thrust—the forward force produced by the powerplant/ propeller or rotor. It opposes or overcomes the force of drag. As a general rule, it acts parallel to the longitudinal axis. However, this is not always the case, as explained later.
  • Drag—a rearward, retarding force caused by disruption of airflow by the wing, rotor, fuselage, and other protruding objects. As a general rule, drag opposes thrust and acts rearward parallel to the relative wind.
  • Lift—is a force that is produced by the dynamic effect of the air acting on the airfoil, and acts perpendicular to the flight path through the center of lift (CL) and perpendicular to the lateral axis. In level flight, lift opposes the downward force of weight.
  • Weight—the combined load of the aircraft itself, the crew, the fuel, and the cargo or baggage. Weight is a force that pulls the aircraft downward because of the force of gravity. It opposes lift and acts vertically downward through the aircraft’s center of gravity (CG).

In steady flight, the sum of these opposing forces is always zero. There can be no unbalanced forces in steady, straight flight based upon Newton’s Third Law, which states that for every action or force there is an equal, but opposite, reaction or force. This is true whether flying level or when climbing or descending.

Figure 5-1. Relationship of forces acting on an aircraft.

Figure 5-1. Relationship of forces acting on an aircraft.

It does not mean the four forces are equal. It means the opposing forces are equal to, and thereby cancel, the effects of each other. In Figure 5-1, the force vectors of thrust, drag, lift, and weight appear to be equal in value. The usual explanation states (without stipulating that thrust and drag do not equal weight and lift) that thrust equals drag and lift equals weight. Although true, this statement can be misleading. It should be understood that in straight, level, unaccelerated flight, it is true that the opposing lift/weight forces are equal. They are also greater than the opposing forces of thrust/drag that are equal only to each other. Therefore, in steady flight:

  • The sum of all upward components of forces (not just lift) equals the sum of all downward components of forces (not just weight)
  • The sum of all forward components of forces (not just thrust) equals the sum of all backward components of forces (not just drag)

This refinement of the old “thrust equals drag; lift equals weight” formula explains that a portion of thrust is directed upward in climbs and slow flight and acts as if it were lift while a portion of weight is directed backward opposite to the direction of flight and acts as if it were drag. In slow flight, thrust has an upward component. But because the aircraft is in level flight, weight does not contribute to drag. [Figure 5-2]

Figure 5-2. Force vectors during a stabilized climb.

Figure 5-2. Force vectors during a stabilized climb.

In glides, a portion of the weight vector is directed along the forward flight path and, therefore, acts as thrust. In other words, any time the flight path of the aircraft is not horizontal, lift, weight, thrust, and drag vectors must each be broken down into two components.

Another important concept to understand is angle of attack (AOA). Since the early days of flight, AOA is fundamental to understanding many aspects of airplane performance, stability, and control. The AOA is defined as the acute angle between the chord line of the airfoil and the direction of the relative wind.

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Discussions of the preceding concepts are frequently omitted in aeronautical texts/handbooks/manuals. The reason is not that they are inconsequential, but because the main ideas with respect to the aerodynamic forces acting upon an aircraft in flight can be presented in their most essential elements without being involved in the technicalities of the aerodynamicist. In point of fact, considering only level flight, and normal climbs and glides in a steady state, it is still true that lift provided by the wing or rotor is the primary upward force, and weight is the primary downward force.

By using the aerodynamic forces of thrust, drag, lift, and weight, pilots can fly a controlled, safe flight. A more detailed discussion of these forces follows.


For an aircraft to start moving, thrust must be exerted and be greater than drag. The aircraft continues to move and gain speed until thrust and drag are equal. In order to maintain a constant airspeed, thrust and drag must remain equal, just as lift and weight must be equal to maintain a constant altitude. If in level flight, the engine power is reduced, the thrust is lessened, and the aircraft slows down. As long as the thrust is less than the drag, the aircraft continues to decelerate. To a point, as the aircraft slows down, the drag force will also decrease. The aircraft will continue to slow down until thrust again equals drag at which point the airspeed will stabilize.

Likewise, if the engine power is increased, thrust becomes greater than drag and the airspeed increases. As long as the thrust continues to be greater than the drag, the aircraft continues to accelerate. When drag equals thrust, the aircraft flies at a constant airspeed.

Straight-and-level flight may be sustained at a wide range of speeds. The pilot coordinates AOA and thrust in all speed regimes if the aircraft is to be held in level flight. An important fact related to the principal of lift (for a given airfoil shape) is that lift varies with the AOA and airspeed. Therefore, a large AOA at low airspeeds produces an equal amount of lift at high airspeeds with a low AOA. The speed regimes of flight can be grouped in three categories: lowspeed flight, cruising flight, and high-speed flight.

When the airspeed is low, the AOA must be relatively high if the balance between lift and weight is to be maintained. [Figure 5-3] If thrust decreases and airspeed decreases, lift will become less than weight and the aircraft will start to descend. To maintain level flight, the pilot can increase the AOA an amount that generates a lift force again equal to the weight of the aircraft. While the aircraft will be flying more slowly, it will still maintain level flight. The AOA is adjusted to maintain lift equal weight. The airspeed will naturally adjust until drag equals thrust and then maintain that airspeed (assumes the pilot is not trying to hold an exact speed).

Figure 5-3. Angle of attack at various speeds.

Figure 5-3. Angle of attack at various speeds. [click image to enlarge]

Straight-and-level flight in the slow-speed regime provides some interesting conditions relative to the equilibrium of forces. With the aircraft in a nose-high attitude, there is a vertical component of thrust that helps support it. For one thing, wing loading tends to be less than would be expected.

In level flight, when thrust is increased, the aircraft speeds up and the lift increases. The aircraft will start to climb unless the AOA is decreased just enough to maintain the relationship between lift and weight. The timing of this decrease in AOA needs to be coordinated with the increase in thrust and airspeed. Otherwise, if the AOA is decreased too fast, the aircraft will descend, and if the AOA is decreased too slowly, the aircraft will climb.

As the airspeed varies due to thrust, the AOA must also vary to maintain level flight. At very high speeds and level flight, it is even possible to have a slightly negative AOA. As thrust is reduced and airspeed decreases, the AOA must increase in order to maintain altitude. If speed decreases enough, the required AOA will increase to the critical AOA. Any further increase in the AOA will result in the wing stalling. Therefore, extra vigilance is required at reduced thrust settings and low speeds so as not to exceed the critical angle of attack. If the airplane is equipped with an AOA indicator, it should be referenced to help monitor the proximity to the critical AOA.

Some aircraft have the ability to change the direction of the thrust rather than changing the AOA. This is accomplished either by pivoting the engines or by vectoring the exhaust gases. [Figure 5-4]

Figure 5-4. Some aircraft have the ability to change the direction of thrust.

Figure 5-4. Some aircraft have the ability to change the direction of thrust.

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