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    109: How Things Fly

How Things Fly (Gallery 109)

One of the best and most kid-friendly galleries at Air & Space is How Things Fly, sponsored by Boeing. As its name suggests, the gallery is filled with small, hands-on displays, most about the size of a phone booth, that demonstrate the physical principles of airplane and rocket flight: thrust, drag, lift, and weight. Young museum volunteers circulate around the room to explain the displays, answer questions, and reinforce what the displays have to do with flight.

For example, one display has part of an airplane wing submerged in a clear, plastic pipe full of colored water. Push a button to start the display, and a pump moves water over the wing, showing how the water on top of the wing has a lower pressure than the water below. The display explains why this happens (the Bernoulli Principle), and how the same effect is what creates lift in an airplane wing, allowing it to fly. Other nearby kiosks show the same effect with different toys, ranging from baseballs hung with string, to inflated beach balls spinning untethered above an industrial air blower.

Other hands-on displays show why wings are round at the front and pointy in the back; how airplane flaps work; how fast different objects fall in air and in a vacuum (explaining drag); and high-speed flight wing design. For that, several consecutive hands-on displays explain what “the speed of sound” means, how to visualize it (using a large coiled spring), and why it’s important for anyone designing a fast plane or rocket.

The section on thrust describes how piston, jet, and rocket engines work. There’s a great hands-on display that shows kids how, at high altitudes with thin air, airplane propellers stop working while rocket engines keep going. It’s an excellent explanation of why you can’t fly a propeller plane to the moon.

The museum holds short, instructor-led talks throughout the day on a small stage set up inside this gallery. Most of the talks have a hands-on activity, such as how to build a great paper airplane, and kids are given plenty of opportunities to ask questions. If you’ve got the time and your kids have the interest, it’s definitely worthwhile (we got some fantastic paper airplane designs).

The last part of How Things Fly includes a chance to sit in a real Cessna 150 cockpit, a sit-down-and-spin lesson on gyroscopes (it’s surprising and loads of fun), and a quick lesson on the material sciences that bring us strong, lightweight airplanes and spacecraft.

Other Lands at Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum