Most modes of modern transportation, such as trains, cars, and buses, can easily reverse direction with a simple switch of gears. Airplanes, however, are a bit more complicated. We know planes can move forward while both taxing and flying, but can they move in reverse?
Airplanes can move in reverse while on the ground using reverse thrusters. However, airplanes were designed primarily to move forward, so the reverse process is not often used in normal operations. Notably, airplanes can’t move in reverse midair.
Keep reading for more information on reverse thrusters, why planes are pushed back from the gate, and whether planes can reverse or stand still while in the air.
Can Planes Move in Reverse?
Traveling on an airplane is one of the fastest ways to get from one place to another. Because so much of an airplane’s purpose is associated with forward motion, you rarely hear about planes moving in reverse, aside from when they push back from the gate.
In normal operations, most commercial airplanes taxi into the gate and are pushed out by pushback tractors operated by ground personnel. However, planes can move in reverse on their own.
Reverse thrusters are the part of the airplane that gives it the ability to move in reverse. When a plane is moving forward, the air from the engines is released towards the aircraft’s rear, propelling the plane forward.
Reverse thrusters do the opposite: They release air out of the side of the engine and slightly forward instead of backwards, which slows down the plane if it’s in motion or makes it move in reverse if it is at a standstill.
We now know that planes can move in reverse using reverse thrusters. So if planes can reverse on their own, why do we always see them being pushed back in airports?
Why Do Planes Have To Be Pushed Back?
Planes have to be pushed back for safety reasons. The reverse thrusters of planes release a powerful gush of air that can easily harm people and items around the plane. Moreover, planes don’t have a reliable mechanism like a vehicle’s side mirrors to help the pilot reverse safely.
Although airplanes can move in reverse on their own, it’s a standard procedure for ground personnel to use pushback tractors to push them back from the gate. The personnel attach pushback tractors, or tugs, to the airplane’s nose landing gear.
After communicating with the pilot to ensure proper attachment, the ground personnel push the plane out of the parking area and turn it until it’s in a position to move forward.
Planes are pushed back with this procedure for several reasons, and most are related to safety. Many commercial airlines have previously used reverse thrusters to exit a parking spot, which is called a ‘power back’ procedure. However, today it’s quite rare as the risks outweigh the benefits.
Firstly, the forward gush of air from reverse thrusters is strong; so strong, in fact, that it could send ground personnel, debris, luggage carts, and even vehicles and equipment flying.
In addition to potentially harming personnel, the power back procedure can also damage the plane itself, specifically the engines, as the air released from reverse thrusters creates the potential for items to be sucked into the engine.
Secondly, unlike cars, airplanes don’t have rearview mirrors. This means that if pilots were to use the power back method to push back from the gate, they’d be doing it without seeing where they are headed and would need someone on the ground serving as a lookout to direct them.
Since someone would have to be there physically to direct pilots anyway, it makes more sense to put that same person in control of a pushback tractor for a safer operation with much less risk.
Can Fighter Jets Reverse?
While most aircraft have the same basic functions, it’s worth addressing fighter jets as they are designed for air combat and therefore have different capabilities compared to commercial airplanes.
Fighter jets can’t reverse. They typically don’t have reverse thrust capability, primarily because it makes the plane much heavier, and isn’t necessary due to fighter jets already having such an advanced braking system.
Although fighter jets can’t reverse, they can perform some fascinating aerial maneuvers, such as flying upside down, taking sharp turns, and performing loops & barrel rolls, just to name a few.
These maneuvers are often used if a fighter pilot needs to quickly change the direction they’re flying while in the air.
Can an Airplane Stand Still in the Air?
While at times it may appear like airplanes are hovering, they can’t suspend themselves in midair.
An airplane can’t stand still in the air. Its ability to take flight depends on its ability to move forward at high speed. Because airplanes can’t simply lift off the ground like helicopters, they can’t remain suspended during flight.
Although no function allows airplanes to remain suspended while flying, they can hover momentarily.
The four forces on an airplane at any moment are thrust, drag, lift, and weight. Thrust and drag are directly related as thrust is the forward motion of the plane, while drag accounts for opposing forces, such as air resistance and headwinds.
Lift and weight are also related, as lift is created by the motion of the aircraft flying through the air, while weight is what pulls the plane toward the ground. If you’re more of a visual person, check out this diagram by NASA that details the four forces on an airplane.
It’s extremely rare, but when all of the opposing forces on an airplane cancel each other out simultaneously, it will cause the airplane to remain suspended in a single spot, but only until one of the forces changes, even slightly.
Check out this video from “Captain Joe” on YouTube to learn more about planes going backwards.
Do Jet Engines Go in Reverse When Landing?
Jet engines don’t go in reverse when landing. However, reverse thrusting is often used to aid an airplane’s landing. When a plane lands, a combination of activating the brakes and reverse thrust is used to slow its momentum and either bring it to a stop or slow it enough to begin a safe taxi speed.
The reason reverse thrust is so commonly used during landing is that although a commercial plane could stop using only the brakes, it would likely result in frequent tire damage and shorten the life of the brakes.
Since it isn’t sustainable or cost-effective for commercial airlines to change tires after every landing, reverse thrust is used to help preserve the tires and brakes and allow airplanes to land on shorter runways.
Although airplanes can’t fly backwards, flying through the clouds and experiencing incredible views during flight still makes for a memorable journey.
The top priority of air travel is safety; so take comfort in the fact that there are lots of rules, regulations, and procedures, that are in place to ensure you make it to your destination as quickly and safely as possible.
Still, you can make air travel safer by avoiding accident-prone airlines. Happy flying!