Sarun Laowong/Getty Images
Melissa Locker
February 28, 2017

There are many advantages to flying in smaller airplanes: they tend to zip in and out of airports quickly, they can land in smaller cities or islands with shorter runways, and they're generally more flexible than a jumbo jet. But with the perks come disadvantages—particularly when it comes to taking off. 

While it’s easy to miss the jump into the sky on a jetliner, those flying on a small plane will feel every bump and lift as the plane soars into the air. Theoretically, liftoff should feel the same regardless of what size airplane you’re on. Passengers may chalk up a smooth or rough takeoff to the skill of the pilot, but Captain John Cox, CEO of Safety Operating Systems, disagrees. “Pilots can make some difference,” he said. “But the takeoff procedures are rigid, making pilot differences pretty small.”

Instead, the reason you don’t feel takeoff as much in a larger plane boils down to the laws of physics and the design of the airplane itself. “There are many factors that cause the difference in the sensation,” said Cox, including aerodynamics, engines, and tires.

First a bit of aeronautical engineering: Planes are able to take off and fly through the air thanks to a combination of engines (either jet or propeller) that thrust the plane forward and perfectly engineered wings that provide lift. As NASA explains, how much lift the plane gets depends on the shape, size, and weight of the airplane as well as the speed at which it is moving. Large airplanes have more mass—they weigh more— and, therefore, accelerate slower,” explained Cox. Slower acceleration can result in a lift-off that feels smoother.

Another reason takeoff on a large plane is easier on the body is due to the number of engines on a jumbo jet. Most commercial airplanes have four engines, while smaller planes run on two. While you might think that more engines would translate to greater velocity and thrust and a smoother takeoff, the weight of the plane plays a big role in lift-off, too.

“Large four-engine airplanes climb slower than modern twin jets,” explained Cox. ”With a four-engine airplane there are three other engines to provide thrust for the climb, in a twin there is only one. This means that twin jets have a higher power-to-weight ratio than three or four engine jets.”

Think of this like a motorcycle versus a car. Motorcycles are stripped down to two wheels and a seat, while a car has four seats, four doors, and windows. They may have similar engines, but a motorcycle’s reduced weight allows it move faster. That sounds ideal, until you hit a pot hole, which you’ll feel a lot more in a motorcycle than in your average sedan. It’s the same with airplanes: smaller planes may be able to move faster, but you’ll feel all the bumps. “Because the large airplanes weigh more, they are not affected by turbulence as much,” added Cox.

There may also be some differences in the landing gear between a larger and smaller plane. “Large jets have more tires making it a little more stable, but this is a small difference,” said Cox.

Cox also attributes part of an easier takeoff to a visual trick. “Passengers are further away from the ground, because large airplanes sit higher, making the visual sensation less intense,” said Cox, comparing the experience to something like riding in a sports car versus riding in a bus. Even though the commuter bus and, say, the Ferrari are driving the same speed, the feeling is more intense in a sports car since it’s lower to the ground. It’s a similar experience in a small airplane where your eyes trick your brain into feeling like a takeoff is more intense than in a large plane, when it’s objectively more-or-less the same thing.

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