What keeps planes in the air and why aren't we asking our students?


The European Union’s Fly Higher project is seeking to engage students across the continent in STEM subjects using the power of aeroplanes and the achievements of flight. John Fairhurst explains.

I am writing this in Madeira. I flew here from London, in about three-and-half-hours, with much the same intention as everyone else on the plane: to escape from the tail end of the long grey cold winter that is (or I hope by the time you read this, was) still gripping Northern Europe.

Like most of the others, I worried about the petty strictures of airport security: will my trousers stay up without my belt?, not losing my passport, the tedium of the flight itself. I gave little thought to the incredible distance we were travelling, the high speed at which we were moving, or the death-defying altitude at which we were suspended.

How is this all possible? Well, who knows? Let EasyJet sort that out –we’re off to the sun! Magic! 

The plane, an Airbus 319, was full – so perhaps about 150 or so passengers? Each with a bag as close to the 20kg limit as they could get. Just think of the weight that aeroplane is carrying…

But then the machine itself is huge – and heavy, much, much heavier than the people on board. And the fuel – surely such a thing, so obviously much, much heavier than air, should never be able to fly! It defies layman’s logic. Magic, it must be!

Well, no. Of course not. Planes do not fly because of magic. Clever science, careful application of technology to design and engineering, all underpinned by mathematics – what we now in schools call the “STEM subjects” – all of these make it possible for humans to fly in these amazing machines. Not only possible, but with remarkable safety, too. 

How is it that something so extraordinary and exciting has become so commonplace that we simply take it for granted? 

Why are we not celebrating such a fantastic human achievement in our schools? Why are we not using the phenomenon of flight to create interest in those STEM subjects? And why are we not engaging the young people who, as adults, may well take this formidable technology a stage further in the future? Good questions. Questions that the Fly Higher project wants to address.

Let me first explain what the project is about. The European Commission sees that aviation is an area of considerable and rapid growth. People want and expect to travel ever further and ever more frequently, whether for business or pleasure. 

The economic argument is clear. For Europeans to have the capacity to travel about the European Union with ease has major economic benefits. 

Madeira is a case in point – the island is so very much more prosperous now it has a full-sized airport able to handle larger aircraft flying long distances; extending the runway out to sea (another feat of engineering genius) has underpinned a booming tourist industry, bringing all kinds of work and new opportunities for the people of the island.

There is also a social argument. Madeira is not the impoverished place it was just a generation or so ago. The island looks and feels very much a flourishing part of Europe. Most Madeirans recognise just how much better their lives have become, and they, of course, can now see the world for themselves.

They can fly off for the day to do their business in Lisbon, or – though that may take a bit longer – to the opposite side of the European Union, say, Gdansk. Or fly to Lyon ahead of their holidays: skiing in the Alps (anything to get way from that interminable sun). Air travel has made this integration not just possible, but routine.

So, back to aeroplanes! The European Union sees good reason to invest in them and the many services that keep them running. 

They want to try to address the lack of exposure of aeronautics and aviation in schools in order to attract new entrants into a rapidly growing and flourishing industry of considerable economic and social importance. 

Hence Fly Higher and the involvement of ESHA – the European School Heads’ Association – in which both the Association of School and College Leaders and the National Association of Head Teachers are active members.

The project’s university partners – Coventry, Madrid and Toulouse – are developing materials to illustrate the theories they teach in ways that would be accessible to younger audiences. ESHA is helping to ensure that these materials are pedagogically secure and attractive to the teachers it hopes will use them.

We are not, however, expecting to change the curriculum, but enhance it, illustrating the points that we teach already with references to aeronautics. For example, at some point in our maths or physics programmes our schools all teach Newton’s third law. But how many of us go on to point out that jet engines depend upon it? Or illustrate that fact by letting a blown-up balloon shoot across the room?

The project’s media partner – Inovamäis, in Portugal – will reproduce the materials as modern, attractive packages in a series of different languages, and distribute them electronically. Remember, this is a European Union-funded project – so there should be no charge to schools.

ESHA expects, further, to promote a dialogue between schools and the industry itself. Boeing (Europe) are partners, too. We are planning:  

  • “Aero-days” (the first one was in Madrid earlier this month) bringing various stakeholders together to offer school children an exciting, inspiring day related to aeronautics and the wonders of engineering. 

  • “Science-cafés” for teachers to explore the work we have done, become comfortable with our materials and/or give us feedback about how well they have worked (and, of course, to meet with people in the industry itself).

  • Student competitions at regional and national level – perhaps, even, EU-wide – that will engage young people of all ages and ability.

  • And “Career Kits” that will help support any young person who wants to work in this growing and important field (there are many jobs to be found, at almost every level).

The European Union sees economic and social gains from the Fly Higher project. So does ESHA – but we also see a golden opportunity to enrich the experience of our students by bringing theory to life with a very real application that at the moment, frankly, we rather neglect.

If you want to know more, visit our website where there are sections for students, teachers and careers advisors, and for the industry itself. The project has still another 15 months to go before it is complete, so what you see online is just the beginning…

  • John Fairhurst is a former secondary school headteacher and a past president of the Association of School and College Leaders.

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