Portrayals of planes hovering in the air are not uncommon. You may have seen planes hovering in movies or video games, but in reality, the vast majority of planes cannot hover in the air.
While some experimental planes have been designed to hover, meaning that it is technically possible for a plane to hover, they’re the exception, not the norm.
The costs of design, development and engineering to make a plane hover are so great with little real world benefit, meaning that it just wouldn’t be worth, especially as helicopters exist.
Table of Contents
- 1 Hovering Capabilities of Planes
- 2 Planes Can Hover in Mid-Air or One Spot
- 3 How Planes Are Able to Hover
- 4 A Plane Hover For Just a Few Seconds
- 5 Why Planes Look Like They Are Hovering
- 6 Why Helicopters Can Hover But Almost No Plane Can
Hovering Capabilities of Planes
Theoretically, a small plane could only hover if all the horizontal and vertical forces acting on it are perfectly balanced, preventing movement in any direction. It is extremely rare for planes to experience balanced forces, though.
Presently, no commercial planes can hover in the air. Developing and implementing technology that would allow commercial planes to hover would be extremely expensive and ultimately pointless.
Hovering would not provide commercial plane operators with any advantage, so neither aircraft manufacturers nor airlines are willing to invest in it.
The only commercial aircraft that can hover are helicopters, which are used extensively to transport people and materials to places that would otherwise be near impossible to reach in any other way.
Most military airplanes that can hover are experimental aircraft.
Many of these aircraft are unlikely to ever be used in active service because of the practical difficulties in building planes that can hover.
Military Planes That Can Hover:
- Dornier Do-31
The Do 31 was an experimental vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) plane that was designed to be used by the Luftwaffe.
The Do 31 used Pegasus engines installed in its two inboard nacelles.
The outer nacelles had four more Rolls Royce RB162 engines that were mounted vertically for additional lift.
Due to the aircraft’s high cost, technical and logistical difficulties, the Do-31 never went beyond the prototype stage, though did manage to set several world records during its brief flying career.
- Harrier Jump Jet
The Harrier is a family of jet-powered military aircraft that can take off and land vertically.
The Harrier jets employ four small nozzles beneath their wings that rotate downwards to hover and rotate upwards for forward flight.
This arrangement is known as the “four-poster,” as each nozzle creates one post for lifting the aircraft.
The Harrier Jump Jets are very energy-consuming, and their vertical takeoff and landing abilities reduce mobility and speed.
Despite this difficulty, many Harrier Jump Jets have been produced, and they have the potential to spread hovering technology to other military aircraft.
- F-35B Lightning II
The F-35B Lightning II is a STOVL aircraft, which stands for short take-off and vertical landing. This means that it is able to either take off either vertically or from a short runway and land vertically – or in other words, hover.
The F-35B Lightning II entered service on 31 July 2015 and is projected to operate until 2070. It is intended to be the tactical airpower of the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.
Planes Can Hover in Mid-Air or One Spot
A plane can hover in the air for one of two possible reasons:
- It’s either designed for vertical takeoffs and landings like the Harrier Jump Jets.
- The forces acting on the plane are completely balanced, preventing it from moving in any direction.
How Planes Are Able to Hover
A vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft can hover.
The two most common technologies that allow VTOL aircraft to work are tilt-rotor aircraft and thrust vectoring.
Tilt-rotor aircraft use power rotors, usually at the end of their wings, to generate lift An example of a successful tilt-rotor aircraft is the V-22 Osprey.
Thrust vectoring aircraft use rocket thrust to propel themselves vertically.
The previously mentioned Harrier Jump Jets are an example of a thrust-vectoring aircraft.
A plane has four major forces acting on it while in the air that all point in different directions.
These forces are thrust, drag, lift and weight and allow a plane to stay in the air.
Thrust propels the plane forward, lift maintains the plane’s altitude, drag prevents the plane from going forward horizontally, and weight pushes the plane downwards.
If the horizontal forces of thrust and drag are equal, and the vertical forced weight and lift are equal, a plane would hover in the air until one of these variables change.
A Plane Hover For Just a Few Seconds
Theoretically, a plane can hover for a few seconds. Since it’s improbable for the four aforementioned forces acting on the plane to remain equal for long, a plane should not be able to hover for more than a few seconds.
Currently, in 2022, there are no publicly known instances of any planes hovering for longer than a few seconds maximum. It’s unlikely a plane will ever hover for longer due to a balance of forces.
Why Planes Look Like They Are Hovering
It’s not unusual to see pictures or videos of planes that appear as if they’re hovering. These images or videos are genuine, but these planes are not hovering. The impression that the aircraft is hovering is caused by an optical illusion.
Aircraft appear still in the air if they’re flying directly towards the observer. It’s also due to the position and perspective of the observer. For instance, if you see a moving plane from a moving car, the plane will look like it’s hovering because you’ll also be moving.
Some aircraft also fly slowly, which people could mistake for hovering. Except for some experimental aircraft, planes do not hover, so these pictures and videos do not show planes hovering.
Why Helicopters Can Hover But Almost No Plane Can
Helicopters are iconic for hovering. Helicopters can hover because the aircraft is designed to generate vertical lift to fly; planes use horizontal lift to fly.
Helicopters generate vertical lift using propellers, usually a pair of two propellers, large ones on the chopper’s top and smaller ones on the tail. The larger propellers allow flight, while the smaller ones control flight direction.
The propellers create strong winds. The winds beneath the blades have higher pressure than the air above, and when the blades twist slightly, air goes downwards, creating lift. In contrast, planes move forward to generate lift.
In conclusion, although you may have seen videos or representations of airplanes hovering in the air, they largely can’t in reality. Few airplanes have been designed to be able to hover, and those that have are mostly experimental and likely won’t be mass-produced. Helicopters can hover while planes can’t because of the difference in the design of the two types of aircraft. Helicopters generate vertical lift to fly, while planes use horizontal lift.
Helen Krasner holds a PPL(A), with 15 years experience flying fixed-wing aircraft; a PPL(H), with 13 years experience flying helicopters; and a CPL(H), Helicopter Instructor Rating, with 12 years working as a helicopter instructor.
Helen is an accomplished aviation writer with 12 years of experience, having authored several books and published numerous articles while also serving as the Editor of the BWPA (British Women Pilots Association) newsletter, with her excellent work having been recognized with her nomination of the “Aviation Journalist of the Year” award.
Helen has won the “Dawn to Dusk” International Flying Competition, along with the best all-female competitors, three times with her copilot.