The Science of Flight

In partnership with
Professor James W. Gregory, Ph.D.
The Ohio State University
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Course No. 1321
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What Will You Learn?

  • The true origin of lift, drag, and stall.
  • The function of all those instruments in the cockpit.
  • What air traffic controllers do.
  • The nature of the "sound barrier."
  • How rockets and orbits work.
  • Historic exploits and tragic accidents in air and space.

Course Overview

Many of us board a plane without understanding what a truly extraordinary experience flight is: suspended 30,000 feet or more in the air, propelled to our destination at close to the speed of sound, protected from extreme cold and low pressure by the thin skin of the aircraft. We realize it’s complicated, but few of us know how it works. Even more remarkable is space flight, the “rocket science” that we use as a benchmark of difficulty or complexity.

Yet the related principles of atmospheric flight and space flight are not difficult at all, and the study of these two miracles of modern engineering is a wide-ranging lesson in physics, technology, and history. No organization is more authoritative on this subject than the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM) and its annex, the Udvar-Hazy Center. Together, they host the world’s premier collections of air and space artifacts and the home to some of the most distinguished scholars in the field.

The Great Courses is proud to join forces with the Smithsonian to explain flight as it’s never been explained before. In 24 visually rich half-hour lectures, The Science of Flight covers the inner workings of gliders, airplanes, helicopters, rockets, spacecraft, and other flying machines, illustrated by the incomparable holdings of NASM and with commentary by the museum’s internationally renowned curators.

The Science of Flight is taught by award-winning educator James W. Gregory, Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Ohio State University. An instrument-rated private pilot as well as an engineer, Professor Gregory gives as thorough an explanation of the principles of flight, rocketry, and related topics as you’ll get outside of flight school. Throughout, his beautifully clear lectures are supplemented by incisive commentary from NASM experts, who put everything from airfoils to orbits into a fascinating historical context.

The more than one dozen curators and other NASM staff featured in this course include:

  • Tom Crouch: The Senior Curator of Aeronautics at NASM, Dr. Crouch surveys the celebrated early days of aviation. A noted historian, he is the author of a bestselling biography of the Wright brothers.
  • John D. Anderson, Jr.: Serving as technical consultant for the course, Dr. Anderson is the Curator of Aerodynamics at NASM. He draws on his love of aviation engineering history to illuminate pioneering breakthroughs in the field.
  • Dorothy Cochrane: NASM’s Curator of General Aviation, Cochrane focuses on the feats of extraordinary civilian pilots, including aerobatic champions and record-breaking long-distance fliers.
  • Roger Launius: The Senior Curator of Space History at NASM and formerly Chief Historian for NASA, Dr. Launius predicts the future of space travel, weighing past exploits and present plans.

And this is just some of the remarkable talent assembled for this course.

Think Like an Aeronautical Engineer

Aviation has advanced hand-in-hand with our growing understanding of the physics of flight—what causes lift, how to reduce drag, the complex events in the transonic realm. This makes NASM the ideal laboratory for explaining revolutionary milestones—from the three-axis control system of the original Wright Flyer that made winged flight practical; to the supercharged Rolls Royce Merlin engine that gave the P-51 Mustang a winning edge in World War II; to the thermal tile system that allowed the Space Shuttle to survive dozens of reentries from space.

In The Science of Flight, Professor Gregory delves deeply into these and many other developments, explaining how they work at a fundamental level, down to the equations that govern such phenomena as wing loading, parasitic drag, induced drag, power in a reciprocating engine, and thrust in a jet or rocket engine. Using almost no higher mathematics than high-school-level algebra, Dr. Gregory demonstrates how aeronautical engineers think, analyzing forces to predict exactly what will happen with a particular airfoil, structural material, power plant, and scores of other design features.

Such an inquiring attitude will pay off next time you’re in the air, alerting you to intriguing observations like these:

  • Lift made visible: Watch the wing as you accelerate down the runway. As lift builds, you will see the wing bend upward. On large aircraft made of composite materials, such as the Boeing 787, the deflection can be substantial, as much as twelve feet at the wing tip!
  • Wing origami: The sound of hydraulic actuators is your clue to look out the window and observe the wing dramatically change shape prior to landing. By deploying slats on the leading edge and flaps on the trailing edge, higher lift is produced for a safe landing at a relatively low speed.
  • A shocking sight: Supersonic flight is hampered by the formation of shock waves that constitute the notorious “sound barrier.” Under the right lighting, you can see the shadow of a shock wave on the wing of a passenger jet cruising at a four-fifths of the speed of sound.
  • Breathtaking: Commercial jets fly at an altitude that would challenge human survival if the plane was not pressurized. However, the cabin is not set to sea-level pressure but to the equivalent of a high-elevation city such as Santa Fe or Mexico City. This can cause shortness of breath for some passengers.

Let Your Understanding of Flight Take Wing!

One big advantage of taking the engineer’s approach to understanding flight is that it clears up common misconceptions. For example, a frequently heard explanation of lift is that air rushing past a wing has farther to go along the curved upper surface than along the flat underside. According to this view, the top flow of air must go faster to “catch up” with air directed along the bottom. Faster-moving air equals lower pressure, which equals lift. The last sentence is correct, but the rest of the explanation is wrong—as shown by the existence of symmetrical airfoils and planes that fly upside-down.

To get at the real origin of lift, Professor Gregory uses conservation of mass and momentum, a garden-hose analogy, and a standard illustration of smoke streamlines around an airfoil. In subsequent lectures, he employs the same ideas to explore drag. And when it comes to discussing the potentially fatal interplay of lift and drag known as stall, Dr. Gregory takes his private plane aloft and demonstrates an actual stall, explaining why it happens and showing how to recover from it.

Like driver education classes, flight schools frequently warn students with accounts of preventable mishaps such as pilot errors, icing incidents, fueling mistakes, unrecognized design flaws, and other conditions that have led to harrowing landings and often tragedies. Dr. Gregory recounts several memorable cases, underlining how knowledge is power in reducing such incidents.

But along with the cautionary tales, he and his NASM collaborators provide plenty of uplifting stories of pilots, astronauts, and engineers who mastered their craft and achieved wonders in air and space. Thanks to Professor Gregory and the Smithsonian, the drama, romance, and science of this incomparable endeavor truly take wing in The Science of Flight.

Additionally, you’ll receive five bonus interviews with NASM experts, providing further insights into the subjects explored throughout the course. You will hear Dr. John Anderson delve into Gustave Eiffel's wind tunnels, the Wright Flyer, and the science of engineering faster flights. Dr. Tom Crouch explores the Wright Brothers’ and innovation, and Dr. Roger Launius dives into the inventive new ways we are working to fly higher, faster, and further.

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29 lectures
 |  Average 29 minutes each
  • 1
    Fundamentals of Flight: Gliding
    How did two world-class pilots coax their glider to a new altitude record? Focus on this feat as a lesson in the key principles of winged flight—including angle of attack, lift, drag, thrust, and weight. Also explore “the miracle on the Hudson,” when airline pilot Chesley Sullenberger glided his jet to an emergency water landing. Close your first lesson with an investigation of the control inputs: yaw, roll, and pitch. x
  • 2
    Balloons, Buoyancy, and the Atmosphere
    Balloons were the first vehicles to fly and Archimedes' principle is the secret of their lift-carrying power. Use the ideal gas law to determine air density and the hydrostatic equation to chart air pressure versus altitude. Then apply these concepts to lighter-than-air craft to learn how the Breitling Orbiter balloon was able to circumnavigate the globe non-stop. x
  • 3
    Takeoff: How Wings Produce Lift
    Lift is the fundamental force involved in winged flight. It is also fraught with misunderstanding. Debunk a popular but incorrect explanation of lift, known as the equal-time theory. Then gain a deep appreciation for the power of air flowing around an airfoil at differing angles of attack. Also examine Albert Einstein's misguided attempt to design a better airfoil. x
  • 4
    Drag Trade-Offs and Boundary-Layer Turbulence
    Focus on parasitic drag, a byproduct of moving an aircraft through the air, which has no practical benefit and is therefore like a parasite. Zero in on two aspects of parasitic drag: skin friction and pressure. Observe how these phenomena arise and how they can be reduced, which is a key goal of aircraft design. Learn about laminar flow as well as golf ball design. x
  • 5
    Stall Events and Lift-Induced Drag
    Aerodynamic stall occurs when lift suddenly decreases, causing drag to rise steeply. Consider the role of stall in several notable air accidents, and see a demonstration in which Professor Gregory deliberately pilots a plane through a stall, showing how to recover. Also look at technological measures to combat stall and the problem of induced drag. x
  • 6
    Wind Tunnels and Predicting Aerodynamics
    Starting with the Wright brothers, trace the role of wind tunnels for studying lift and drag on aircraft structures—research that sparked the rapid advancement of aviation. Aerodynamic research also involves analysis and computations. Get a taste of this process by analyzing conservation of mass, momentum, and energy as they relate to lift and drag. x
  • 7
    Propeller Aircraft: Slow and Efficient
    Apply concepts of lift and drag to propulsion, focusing on the internal combustion engine and propeller—still the most efficient power plant for aircraft flying at low speeds. Study the four-cycle engine and the design of propellers, which are rotating wings twisted to present an optimum angle of attack across their entire length. x
  • 8
    Jet Aircraft: Thrust to Fly Fast
    Propeller-driven aircraft drop sharply in efficiency at high fractions of the speed of sound. For sustained high-speed flight, a different propulsion system is needed—the jet engine. Trace the history of jets and their super-efficient variant used on commercial airliners—the high-bypass turbofan, a machine so intricate and beautiful that a piece of one is on display at the Museum of Modern Art. x
  • 9
    Aircraft Structures and Materials
    For anyone who gets the jitters during heavy turbulence, fear not: the plane is designed to take it! Follow the evolution of airframes from wood to metal to today's composite materials. Consider the problem of designing a sturdy structure that is still light enough to fly efficiently. Also look at tragic accidents that revealed the limits of certain materials and led to safer planes. x
  • 10
    Aircraft Stability and Flight Control
    Trace the quest for stable, controlled flight back to aviation pioneers Samuel P. Langley, the Wright brothers, and Glenn Curtiss. Stability means producing forces that restore an aircraft to equilibrium when perturbed, while control entails deflection of control surfaces to alter the pitch, roll, or yaw effects that act on the aircraft's center of gravity. x
  • 11
    Flying Faster and Higher
    Enter the realm of extreme flight, exploring how fast and how high a plane can go. The answers are remarkably precise and help define a given aircraft's flight envelope. Learn how aeronautical engineers calculate parameters such as airspeed for best climb angle, service ceiling, absolute ceiling, time to climb, stall speed, maximum speed, and speed for optimal cruise. x
  • 12
    Breaking the Sound Barrier and Beyond
    During and just after World War II, the quest for ever faster fighter planes reached an apparent natural barrier—the speed of sound. On approaching this limit, aircraft became unstable and uncontrollable. Discover how a new approach to aircraft design solved the problem of compressibility and shock waves in this transonic region, paving the way for supersonic flight. x
  • 13
    Long-Distance Flight and Predicting Range
    Planes take off with only the fuel required for the planned trip—plus a safety margin. Since there are no filling stations in the sky, the calculations must be precise, taking account of the plane’s performance characteristics, the weather, and other factors. Learn the equations that pilots use and hear a riveting story about what happens when they get it wrong. x
  • 14
    Aerobatics and Dogfighting
    Dogfighting is not just about stick-and-rudder skills; a pilot must understand the physics behind aerial maneuvering. Focus on turn performance, which is the key factor that limits maneuverability and is the cause of many fatal loss-of-control accidents. Learn how energy management is the secret of success in aerial combat, and get tips on performing a barrel roll. x
  • 15
    Mission Profiles and Aircraft Design
    Roll up your sleeves and learn how to design an aircraft, using an approach that has hardly changed in a century of building new airplanes. Start out by determining the weight values, maximum lift coefficient, wing loading, and thrust-to-weight ratio. Next lay out a configuration. Finally, iterate, making modifications and adjustments to perfect your vehicle. x
  • 16
    Primary Cockpit Instruments
    Focus on the science and engineering of the flight instruments. First, look at the hazards faced by even experienced pilots in the era before the altimeter and attitude indicator, learning how these vital instruments work. Then consider the importance of the airspeed indicator, turn coordinator, heading indicator, and vertical speed indicator. x
  • 17
    Air Traffic Navigation and Communication
    On a typical weekday, five to ten thousand aircraft are in the air over the U.S. at a given moment, flying to different cities at varying speeds and different altitudes. Survey the methods, tools, and jargon of air traffic controllers, who keep this traffic moving safely and expeditiously. Also look ahead to next-generation enhancements in the air traffic control system. x
  • 18
    Flight Autonomy and Drones
    Automated flight systems are increasingly used in human-piloted aircraft, where their nearly fail-safe expertise creates some unusual problems. Also look at remotely piloted vehicles, also called drones. Pioneered by the military, these are taking to the sky for a variety of practical civilian missions, including recreational uses. x
  • 19
    Helicopters and Vertical Flight
    Helicopters are so unlike fixed-wing aircraft in appearance and operation that it's hard to believe they work on the same aerodynamics principles. Focus on their ingenious rotor blades, which are rotating wings. Explore the challenge of flying a chopper, and learn why it's safer to lose power at altitude in a helicopter than in an airplane. x
  • 20
    Rocket Science and the Evolution of Launch
    Fly beyond the atmosphere with the only vehicle now capable of reaching space—the rocket. Discover that rocket science is not “rocket science,” in the sense of being extraordinarily difficult. It’s just basic physics and chemistry. Review the fundamentals of solid and liquid propellants, thrust, specific impulse, stability, nozzle design, and the advantages of using multiple stages. x
  • 21
    Orbiting Earth Means Always Falling
    Having ascended into space in the previous lecture, now investigate your orbital options. Whether you go into a circular, elliptical, or Earth-escape orbit—or make it into orbit at all—depends on your cutoff velocity. Calculate different orbits, including the Hohmann transfer ellipse needed for efficiently changing orbits. Also relive the orbital rendezvous exploits of Gemini 8 and Apollo 11. x
  • 22
    To Mars and Beyond: Gravity-Assist Flight
    Venture beyond Earth to the realm of the planets. Interplanetary trajectories require exquisite timing so that the target planet is in exactly the right spot when the spacecraft arrives, often by a Hohmann transfer ellipse. Consider two fuel-saving approaches to these marathon journeys—gravity assists and ion propulsion. x
  • 23
    Atmospheric Reentry: Ballistic, Skip, Glide
    Now return to Earth, analyzing the problem of decelerating from orbital or escape speed to a gentle touchdown on land or water. Calculate the amount of energy that must be lost during the plunge through the atmosphere, and consider three approaches to reentry, including that of the Space Shuttle, which unfortunately ended tragically for Columbia in 2003. Also look at the dire reentry scenario faced by Apollo 13 in 1970. x
  • 24
    The Future of Air and Space Flight
    Close by probing future developments in air and space flight. See these two realms combined in two vehicles: the White Knight aircraft that launches the Space Ship One capsule, and the proposed Mars atmospheric flyer. Consider technically possible devices such as the space elevator, solar-powered aircraft, and personal air vehicles. And that's just the beginning, for the sky is truly the limit! x
  • 25
    Bonus Material: Gustave Eiffel's Wind Tunnels
    Interview with Dr. John Anderson regarding Gustave Eiffel's Wind Tunnels and his career as an applied scientist in the field of aerodynamics. Dr. Anderson is the Curator of Aeronautical Engineering, Aeronautics Department at Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. x
  • 26
    Bonus Material: Engineering Faster Flight Speeds
    Interview with Dr. John Anderson regarding flight speed engineering. x
  • 27
    Bonus Material: Why the Wright Flyer Succeeded
    Interview with Dr. John Anderson regarding how and what contributed to the success of the Wright Flyer. x
  • 28
    Bonus Material: The Wright Brothers' Innovations
    Interview with Dr. Tom Crouch regarding the many innovations of the Wright Brothers. Dr. Crouch is the Senior Curator, Aeronautics Department at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. x
  • 29
    Bonus Material: Higher, Farther, Faster
    Interview with Dr. Roger D. Launius, Former Associate Director of Collections and Curatorial Affairs with Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. x

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Video DVD
Instant Video Includes:
  • Ability to download 24 video lectures and 5 bonus video interviews from your digital library
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
Video DVD
DVD Includes:
  • 24 lectures plus 5 bonus video interviews on 4 DVDs
  • 312-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
  • Closed captioning available

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • 312-page printed course guidebook
  • Suggested Reading
  • Questions to Consider
  • Bibliography

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Your professor

James W. Gregory

About Your Professor

James W. Gregory, Ph.D.
The Ohio State University
James W. Gregory is Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at The Ohio State University. He received a bachelor of science degree in Aerospace Engineering from Georgia Tech and a doctorate in Aeronautics and Astronautics from Purdue University. He is also an instrument-rated private pilot with more than 200 hours of flight time in gliders and single- and multi-engine aircraft. Prior to his arrival at Ohio State...
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The Science of Flight is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 84.
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Overwhelming with formulas I developed headaches and eye aches reading and viewing all the formulas, equations, charts and graphs. This course became unfriendly and non enjoyable due to the overwhelming equations and math. This often seems to become a problem when the presenter has to fill at least 24 lectures. Some of the chapters were more down to earth and insightful. I just found this course tedious and uninspiring to follow.
Date published: 2019-06-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Best lift discussion for non-engineers I'm happy with this lecture series. I'm a private pilot, a paraglider pilot, a science teacher, and have been a professional high-performance model aircraft designer. It is surprising how often in these lectures, I find myself thinking "I know what I'd do next if I were teaching this lecture..." and then the lecturer does exactly what I was thinking. There are a few unfortunate errors, mostly in video editing or in animation. (Example: at one point, when explaining primary controls of an aircraft, the elevator of the Cirrus is shown in place of the aileron, potentially disorienting, given the primacy of first learning). Also, some of the animation is deceptive (like the animated glider rotating downward to fly with its fuselage parallel to its glide path, which is really not what gliders do) These kinds of mistakes feel likely due to animators and camera crew, and perhaps even editors not being experts in the subject, and is understandable. It's just a little frustrating to see this stuff potentially exposed to beginners to the topic who will not know to mentally correct these things. That said, the depiction and discussion of lift is to be commended, both in the patience taken with the subject, and it's many aspects, all with very careful supporting explanations and graphics. What's more, the oh-so-common deceptive or even specious explanations of lift are carefully and clearly debunked, which is a huge contribution to the topic. Overall, I am really pleased with the series.
Date published: 2019-05-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very watchable I bought this for my son's sixth birthday. Bragging aside, I didn't buy it because he totally understands it-- I bought it because when we had Great Courses Plus, he would ask to watch it at least twice a month. To the point of choosing it over cartoons, and he demanded to watch it immediately after opening the present. Yes, he's a Kerbil-obcessed delight who is only picking up a handful of things from this, but that is some seriously impressive production values. The teacher is obviously passionate and I would rate him on par with the best professor I had in the Navy's avionics technician program; I just wish I could watch the lecturer deal with students because I am sure it would be a delight! As far as retaining the things shown, our son has correctly explained several different covered concepts, on his own, weeks after having been introduced to them by this lecture series.
Date published: 2019-05-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent coverage of flight! Being a pilot I really enjoyed the context of this course!
Date published: 2019-03-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent! My husband is a retired Navy jet mechanic and he really enjoyed this course. The professor was awesome and so interesting. This was a wonderful course
Date published: 2019-03-06
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Plenty of good material, but weak in some areas. A great deal of interesting topics covered, but the course is let down by weak diagrams, sadly. One that still grates with me is the amateurish image of an aircraft in cross section, where the lateral axis is awkwardly shown as a diagonal, when the correct thing to do would be to show the aircraft in platform, so as to make the axis orientation make sense. The word ‘wind’ was used, when the presenter meant ‘airflow.’ When presenting such a subject, these things matter a great deal. I struggled with one diagram, until I eventually realised that the airflow and wing were oriented with the flow from the right for some reason, despite conventions and previous diagrams. A big howler was to lead the audience to believe that fighter pilots entering combat routinely jettison fuel. The generic statement that a lower wing loading gives better performance is correct, but no, they don’t leave a stream of fuel behind them to help the opponent. I confess I have some practical experience with this, being an ex mil pilot. All this said, there was still plenty of interest to experience with the course, and the spaceflight sections were very good.
Date published: 2019-02-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Science of flight Excellent illustration of combining the principals of physics and engineering with aircraft technology. Good at showing the historical development of aircraft. Shows how the conflicting needs of design are balanced
Date published: 2019-01-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from GREAT MATERIAL BEAUTIFULLY DONE I purchased this course as a Christmas gift for my son who is a university student studying aerospace engineering. He loves it and is very excited about finishing it. He said it ties together everything he is learning and presents the material in a meaningful way. We initially had some problem getting it sent properly to his email, but the great courses representative quickly resolve the problem. I couldn't be happier.
Date published: 2019-01-06
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