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  • Have you ever wanted to fly? To soar above valleys and mountains, cities and oceans, feeling the wind whipping against your face? Flight has fascinated humans for as long as we have looked skyward and seen birds soaring gracefully above the trees. What is it to fly? How do we explain flight?

    Rights: Dr Phil Battley

    Godwit in flight

    Godwits are equipped for long-distance flight. They can fly further than any other known bird.

    What flies?

    We know birds and insects fly. Bees fly, bats fly. Planes and helicopters do. You might say gliders, kites, hang-gliders and boomerangs fly as well.

    Is flight about things moving through the air?

    People – including scientists and engineers – have their own ways to define flight.

    • Some have a narrow definition: things that fly are things that can stay in the air for a period of time with controlled movement and have their own power source.
    • Others insist that only things with wings can truly fly.
    • Others are more inclusive: if it doesn’t fall out of the sky because of gravity, it must be flying.
    Rights: Image provided by Air New Zealand

    Air New Zealand Airbus 320

    An Air New Zealand Airbus A320 flies over New Zealand.

    What do you think flies? Planes? Birds? Bumble-bees? Rockets? Thistledown? A stone that has just been thrown? How would you define flight? The article Falling, floating and flying might help you answer this question.

    For our purposes (because we have limited space and flight is such a huge topic), ‘things that fly’ refer to things with wings.

    Things with wings

    • Birds that fly have wings. They also have streamlined bodies, light internal or external skeletons, a large heart and strong flight muscles. Find out more in the article How birds fly. Learn how their feathers aid with flight.
    • Planes also have wings and streamlined bodies. Instead of a large heart and strong muscles, they have powerful motors that make up for their weight through speed. Find out more in the article Principles of flight.
    • There is a lot to know about wings and flight! These articles provide more information: Wings and lift, Wing loading and Wing aspect ratio.
    • Gliders also have wings and streamlined bodies, but they don’t have a motor. Their power comes from slowly descending as they move forwards, like a skier going down a slope.
    • Hang-gliders have wings that can generate lift. They also get their power by descending.
    • Well made kites are aerofoil wings, but they need to be tethered for controlled lift.
    Rights: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato

    Ornithologists studying godwits

    Ornithologists Phil Battley and Jesse Conklin from Massey University found godwits travel further in non-stop flight than any other known bird.

    The awesome flight of the godwits

    Recent research has revealed that godwits make the longest non-stop flight of any known bird. Dr Phil Battley and Jesse Conklin are two scientists who study and track these birds.

    Take up the challenge

    These hands-on activities are an ideal way to investigate flight principles:

    These paper or online-based activities aid with content vocabulary development and explore various science concepts:

    Question bank

    The Investigating flight – question bank provides a list of questions about flight and places where their answers can be found. The questions support an inquiry approach.

    Key terms

    For explanations of key concepts, see Investigating flight – key terms.


    Explore the timeline to look at some of the historical aspects of flight. The article People in flight history looks at some key individuals including New Zealanders Richard Pearse and Jean Batten.

    Nature of science

    Some scientists have very definite views when defining what flight is. Other scientists just as passionately disagree with their rigid definitions. There are often conflicting views between scientists. Such arguments show that science is a process of intense criticism and that it has a subjective aspect as well.

    Related collection

    The Science Learning Hub team has curated a collection of resources with flight as the context for learning.

    Flight and the science capabilities for NZC levels 1-3 matches resources with specific capabilities. Notes provide information about key science ideas, pedagogical advice, probing questions and more.

    Login to make this collection part of your private collection, just click on the copy icon. You can then add additional content, notes and share and collaorate with others. Registering an account for the Science Learning Hubs is easy and free – sign up with your email address or Google account. Look for the Sign up button at the top of each page. Find out more about Creating collections.

    Useful link

    See Fantastic flight programme from MOTAT – How does an aircraft fly? What are the forces of flight? Students will learn about the four forces keeping aircraft in the air and investigate the fundamentals of flying with four activities. Recommended for year 1 to 6.

      Published 9 September 2011 Referencing Hub articles
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