# “A plane is standing on a runway. …” No, it’s not. Here’s why.

Dear Cecil:

Cecil, always enjoy your column, however you've got this [airplane and conveyor belt business] absolutely wrong....

— strafe, via the Straight Dope Message Board

It's all about the interpretation of the question. Unfortunately, Cecil commingled two different interpretations in his column....

— zut, via the SDMB

My confidence in Cecil has taken a gigantic hit. … Cecil has fallen into the common trap of believing that [etc.].

Cecil replies:

I knew this was going to happen. Everyone else, forgive me. This week’s column is for the geeks.

Here’s the original question: “A plane is standing on a runway that can move (some sort of band conveyer). The plane moves in one direction, while the conveyer moves in the opposite direction. This conveyer has a control system that tracks the plane speed and tunes the speed of the conveyer to be exactly the same (but in the opposite direction). Can the plane take off?” (The Straight Dope: 060203.)

The implicit assumption is that if the conveyor belt’s speed backward exactly counteracts the airplane’s “speed” (whatever that means) forward, the plane remains stationary relative to the earth and, more importantly, to the air. (We assume the winds are calm.) With no wind moving past its wings, the plane generates no lift and can’t take off.

But the assumption is false. While the conveyor does exert some modest backward force on the plane, that force is easily overcome by the thrust of the engines pulling the plane ahead. The plane moves forward at roughly its usual speed relative to the ground and air, generates lift, and takes off. Many people have a hard time grasping this (although it can be easily demonstrated in the lab), but eventually they do, smack their foreheads, and move on. We’ll call this Basic Realization #1.

Message-board discussions of this question tend to feature a lot of posters who haven’t yet arrived at BR #1 talking right past those who have, insisting more and more loudly that the plane won’t take off. Then there’s a whole other breed of disputants who, whether or not they’ve cracked the riddle as originally posed, prefer to reframe it by proposing progressively more esoteric assumptions, refinements, analogies, etc. Often they arrive at a separate question entirely: Is there a way to set up the conveyor so that it overcomes the thrust of the engines and the plane remains stationary and doesn’t take off?

The answer is yes. Understanding why is Basic Realization #2.