Educational Resources Lets Talk Science Challenge participants

Above: Tires on a Boeing 737 (Wikimedia Commons/Politikaner)

Above: Tires on a Boeing 737 (Wikimedia Commons/Politikaner)

STEM in Context

How do an Airplane's Tires Help It Land Safely?

Shakib Rahman

Summary

Manufacturing and engineering airplane tires is important work! Learn how airplane tires keep the aircraft safe during takeoff and landing.

Have you ever flown in an airplane? If so, you have felt that funny bump when you touch down at the end of the journey. But have you ever wondered how airplane tires handle all that stress and pressure? Why don’t they burst on contact with the hard runway? Well, airplane tires need to be specially designed. Thanks to their design, they are strong enough to stay intact during takeoff and landing.

Did you know?

Airplane tires are made by hand.

Airplane tires are very different from car, truck or bicycle tires. In fact, airplane tires have about as much in common with these tires as they do with running shoes! They are all made of rubber. They all contain air. They all provide support and cushioning for what’s on top of them. But that's where the similarities end.

Tires on a Boeing 777
Tires on a Boeing 777 (Source: Dmirty A. Mottl [CC BY-SA 3.0] via from Wikimedia Commons).

When a plane lands, airplane tires have to support the weight of the airplane and all the people in it.

Did you know?

The passengers and cargo in an airplane are called the payload

Airplane tires have to deal with enormous forces when the plane lands. They especially have to deal with friction. Friction occurs when two surfaces move against each other, like when you rub your hands together.

Airplane tires create friction when they hit the runway. This friction generates heat. It also and wears down the outside layer of the tire. Because of this, airplane tires are reinforced with strong, flexible materials. One of these materials is a super-strong plastic called Kevlar. Kevlar is strong, flexible, heat-resistant and lightweight.

It’s important for airplane tires to be flexible. Flexibility lets airplane tires absorb more of the shock of landing. Flexibility also slows the wearing down of tires.

Main landing gear of a C-160 Transall transport airplane
Main landing gear of a C-160 Transall transport airplane (Source: Scott Taylor, used with permission).

Airplane tires also have conducting strips built into the tire grooves. These strips discharge any electric charges that may have built up. This is important. If static electricity were to build up during takeoff or landing, it could cause a spark. A spark could ignite the fuel in the plane!

Slowmotion Landings (2013) by pilotdynan (1:40 min.).

Airplane tires are also protected by what’s inside. Usually, they are filled with nitrogen. Nitrogen is a non-flammable gas. It doesn’t corrode the metal parts of a plane. Nitrogen also doesn’t oxidize (break down) the rubber in the tires. The tires themselves are made from at least three layers of rubber. Each layer is laid down in a different direction. This makes the tire stronger and gives it better traction when it lands.

Airplane tires also have six times more pressure than car tires do.

But airplane tires are more than just rubber (and Kevlar). They can have 14 different parts. Each of these parts serves a specific purpose in making takeoffs and landings safer and easier.

The typical airplane tire can go through about 500 landings before it needs to be repaired. Usually, the top layer of tread is simply peeled off and replaced with new tread. That way, the other parts don’t need to be replaced.That’s a good thing, because the other parts are very expensive.

How many tires does it take?

CESSNA 172 - 3 TIRES
BOEING 777 - 14 TIRES
AIRBUS A380 - 22 TIRES
ANTONOV AN-225 - 32 TIRES
Source: Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association

 

So the next time you see an airplane in the sky, think about its tires. Remember, there is a lot of engineering that goes into them. This helps the plane take off and land safely!

STARTING POINTS

Connecting and Relating
  • Have you ever experienced a flat tire when you were riding in a car? What did it feel like? What caused the flat tire? 
  • If you have flown on a plane before, have you ever experienced a rough or bumpy landing? What things go through your mind as your plane is landing? Has the quality or state or the aircraft tires ever crossed your mind?
Connecting and Relating
  • Have you ever experienced a flat tire when you were riding in a car? What did it feel like? What caused the flat tire? 
  • If you have flown on a plane before, have you ever experienced a rough or bumpy landing? What things go through your mind as your plane is landing? Has the quality or state or the aircraft tires ever crossed your mind?
Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment
  • Why is the manufacturing and inspection of aircraft tires so rigorous? 
  • In what ways could the failure of an aircraft tire have an impact in society? 
Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment
  • Why is the manufacturing and inspection of aircraft tires so rigorous? 
  • In what ways could the failure of an aircraft tire have an impact in society? 
Exploring Concepts
  • What forces are impacting on airplane tires during take off and landing of an aircraft? 
  • What physical characteristics are essential for effective airplane tires? Why?  
  • What is the purpose of using nitrogen to inflate airplane tires? 
  • What is Kevlar? What was it originally designed for? What different applications does this material currently have? (Note: This question will require additional research)
Exploring Concepts
  • What forces are impacting on airplane tires during take off and landing of an aircraft? 
  • What physical characteristics are essential for effective airplane tires? Why?  
  • What is the purpose of using nitrogen to inflate airplane tires? 
  • What is Kevlar? What was it originally designed for? What different applications does this material currently have? (Note: This question will require additional research)
Nature of Science/Nature of Technology
  • How can the development of a new material technology, such as Kevlar, influence other areas of science and technology? 
Nature of Science/Nature of Technology
  • How can the development of a new material technology, such as Kevlar, influence other areas of science and technology? 
Teaching Suggestions
  • This article and embedded video can be used for Engineering & Technology and Math & Physics teaching and learning related to aircraft, heat transfer, engineering, manufacturing and static electricity. Concepts introduced include design, payload, forces, friction, Kevlar, discharge, electric charge, nitrogen, oxidize and pressure. 
  • After reading this article, teachers could have students complete a Consequence Mapping learning strategy to examine the potential consequences of aircraft tire failure. Ready-to-use Consequence Mapping reproducibles are available in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats. 
  • For a design & technology focus, teachers could have students do a comparison of the design, construction and testing of an automobile tire versus an airplane tire using a Venn Diagram for organizing and comparing information. This learning activity would require the students to conduct additional research.
Teaching Suggestions
  • This article and embedded video can be used for Engineering & Technology and Math & Physics teaching and learning related to aircraft, heat transfer, engineering, manufacturing and static electricity. Concepts introduced include design, payload, forces, friction, Kevlar, discharge, electric charge, nitrogen, oxidize and pressure. 
  • After reading this article, teachers could have students complete a Consequence Mapping learning strategy to examine the potential consequences of aircraft tire failure. Ready-to-use Consequence Mapping reproducibles are available in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats. 
  • For a design & technology focus, teachers could have students do a comparison of the design, construction and testing of an automobile tire versus an airplane tire using a Venn Diagram for organizing and comparing information. This learning activity would require the students to conduct additional research.

Learn more

What Are Aircraft Tires (2015)

Short explanation by Mary McMahon for wiseGeek of how airplane tires are built and maintained.

Airplane tires don’t explode on landing because they are pumped? (2016)

An article from Wired explaining why airplane tires do not explode upon impact

Static Electricity (2019)

An plain-language explanation from Ducksters of static electricity aimed at young learners.

References

Simon, J. (2013, April 15). What's so special about aircraft tires? Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.