Ins and Outs of an Airplane

All the parts of the airplane combine to make flight possible. Explore this picture and uncover the workings of each airplane part.

Scroll down to learn about different parts of an airplane.

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"Colleagues" by Mike Newcomer depicts airmail pilots waving to each other from de Havilland airplanes.

Model: de Havilland, DH-4.
Engine: Liberty 12, 400hp.
Range: 270 mi.
Wingspan: 42 ft. 5.5 in. (12.9 m).
Length: 30 ft. 1.25 in. (9.2 m).
Height: 10 ft. 6 in. (3.2 m).
Weight: 2,647 lb. (1,200 kg).


Old photograph of a biairplane in flight
Two wings on the de Havilland DH-4 make it a biairplane.

The wing creates a force called lift. Lift makes things rise. Lift is the opposite of gravity, which pulls things to the earth.

The wing's shape, tilt and size produce lift for the airplane to overcome the pull of gravity and the weight of the airplane. Look at the picture and describe the shape of the wing.

Notice how the front edge of the wing is thicker than the trailing edge. This shape encourages air to flow faster over the top of the wing. The faster the air flows over the top of the wing, the less air pressure pushes downward on the wing, but at the same time, the air below the wing has more pressure and pushes the airplane upwards.

On the de Havilland's upper and lower wings, the pilot has movable controls called ailerons. The ailerons are hinged sections at the end of the wing. The ailerons control lift during takeoff, landing, and turning (also called roll).


Fuselage of a de Havilland

The fuselage is the main body of the airplane. The wings and the tail are attached to the fuselage.

On the de Havilland DH-4, the fuselage is also where the airmail cargo hold and the cockpit are located.

The cockpit is where the pilot sits and controls the airplane. In the DH-4 airplane, the cockpit is open. The pilot has only a small windshield and no roof to protect him from high winds, rain, snow and cold temperatures.

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Interior of a de Havilland's cockpit

From the cockpit, the pilot controls the speed of the engine and propeller. The pilot also controls the direction of the airplane by moving the ailerons, the elevators, and the rudder. The pilot has instruments to measure the performance of the airplane.

The de Havillands used by the airmail service had notoriously unreliable instruments. Even the compass often did not function properly. The pilots relied greatly upon their knowledge of the route, their visual skills and their experience in reading the airplane's performance by feel, sight and sound.

The de Havilland's instrument panel included:

  • A clock to help track travel time.
  • A compass to provide the pilot with a directional guide.
  • An altimeter to measure altitude.
  • An airspeed indicator to measure the speed of the airplane in relation to the air surrounding it.
  • Instruments monitoring various parts of the engine.


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The elevators on this parked DH-4 are pointed downward.

The tail portion of the airplane has wings and movable sections for stability and control that help the pilot steer the airplane. The two stabilizers in the tail are called the horizontal stabilizer and the vertical stabilizer. They keep the front (or the nose) of the airplane stable.

On the horizontal stabilizer, there are hinged sections called the elevators. The pilot uses the elevators to control the up-and-down motion of the airplane's nose. This up-and-down movement is also called pitch.

On the vertical stabilizer, there is a hinged section called the rudder. The pilot uses the rudder to control the side-to-side motion of the airplane's nose. This side-to-side movement is also called yaw.

de Havilland Diagram

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de Havilland biairplane courtesy of Mike Newcomer

Download artist Mike Newcomer's schematic drawing of the development of the DH-4 airplanes used by the Airmail Service.

» Download PDF file of 8 ½ x 11 version of DH-4 Airplane

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Fad to Fundamental: Airmail in America