I was just wondering because just recently i traveled on an airplane and mid-flight it felt like the plane was coming to a stop just like in a car, but i'm guessing that the pilot was just slowing down. It kind of freaked me out but it also got me wondering, is there actually a speed limit? thanks for the answers :)
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Re: Is there a speed limit for airplanes?
During approach controllers have to maintain specific spacing between aircraft and often must slow them down behind slower aircraft. Your plane very likely was slowing down from approx 570 knots to 250 knots or less for the approach.
There are some speed limits for certain types of airspace. Airliners are always in contact with air traffic control and in order to keep the required separation of aircraft sometimes the controllers will ask the pilot to maintain an airspeed. More than likely you experienced a slowdown while your plane was beginning an approach, During approach controllers have to maintain specific spacing between aircraft and often must slow them down behind slower aircraft. Your plane very likely was slowing down from approx 570 knots to 250 knots or less for the approach.
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Usually it is airspeed of the aircraft. Each aircraft has different airspeed requirements for operation the flaps or landing gear. Usually that speed is determined by the airframe manufacturers and the design of the flap system component. You could built it strong enough to handle any airspeed, but a plane can only carry so much weight. If you built everything to work without any limitations you might have an airplane too heavy to fly. Designing a plane is a balance between lifting capability and weight. Both of these are important design parameters.
Getting your aircraft pilot's license takes work (and money), but it is well within the reach of anyone of normal intelligence and physical ability. I've known college students who basically collected pop bottles for the deposit, and picked up part time work on weekends, and managed to get an hour or two of training every month or so. Took them a couple of years to get their license, but they managed it.
For a normal category license, you are looking at about 40 to 60 hours of flight training (actual time in the plane). Not all of that requires an instructor. Once you "solo," you will be allowed to fly by yourself (with the instructor's approval). Often the training aircraft will be older and very basic planes - but that's just fine. It's the basics that you are learning.
It takes lots of practice, and there is a lot of book learning (weather, regulations, principles of flight) as well. But you can do it if you want to. Most things that are really valuable take work.
Your question is a good one - but the answer is much more complicated that you would expect. Think about driving your car from point A to point B across a city. Lots of paths - some shorter than others, but the shortest path may not be the quickest. Or the quickest may involve a toll road - and you may or may not be in a hurry.
The usual most important factor (for commercial operations, at least) is to save money, while still arriving on time. Airplanes in the air are subject to the winds aloft, which will generally be at different strengths AND DIRECTIONS at different altitudes. Most airplanes operate more efficiently at higher altitudes (up to limits), but at those higher altitudes the plane may face stiffer headwind. Further, it costs time and fuel to climb to those altitudes, and you will not regain coming down as much as it took going up. [Think of a bicycle on hilly terrain vs. level ground.]
So what's the answer? Well, for most trips the pilot will consider all these factors. They are taught during training how to plan the flight in terms of time and fuel required, and to include in that especially the winds at different altitudes. Then they will pick the altitude, whatever that is, that maximizes the results that they consider most important.