As talked about briefly in my article about how fast passenger airplanes fly, generally speaking, there are two different types of speed when talking about airplanes – ground speed and airspeed.
While ground speed is the airplane’s speed relative to the surface of the Earth, airspeed – at least true airspeed – is its speed relative to the air it is flying in.
Below, I will explain the two types of speed in more detail, as well as talk about the four types of airspeed that are commonly used.
Airspeed vs. Ground Speed
As mentioned above, true airspeed is simply the speed at which an aircraft is moving relative to the air it is flying in. As such, it’s also the speed at which the air is flowing around the aircraft’s wings.
Ground speed, on the other hand, is the aircraft’s speed relative to the ground. One thing that should be noted here is that it’s its horizontal rather than vertical speed – an aircraft climbing completely vertically would have a ground speed of zero.
In other words, while airspeed is what determines whether there is enough airflow around an aircraft to make it fly, ground speed is what determines how fast an aircraft will get to its destination.
Wind’s Effect on Ground Speed
The relationship between airspeed and ground speed is fairly simple. Ground speed is simply the sum of airspeed and wind speed.
If the aircraft is flying in the same direction as the wind is blowing, the aircraft experiences tailwind, and its ground speed is higher than its airspeed. On the other hand, if the wind is blowing against the direction the aircraft is traveling in, the aircraft experiences headwind, and its ground speed is lower than its airspeed.
To give you an actual example, imagine an aircraft that cruises at an airspeed of 500 miles per hour that has to cover a ground distance of 2,000 miles.
If there is no wind at all, then both the aircraft’s airspeed and ground speed would be the same 500 miles per hour, and the aircraft would reach its destination in four hours.
If there was a 100 miles per hour headwind – wind blowing against the aircraft’s direction of travel – the aircraft would still be traveling at an airspeed of 500 miles per hour. However, its ground speed would be just 400 miles per hour (100 miles per hour slower than its airspeed). And as such, it would take the aircraft five hours to reach its destinations.
Finally, if there was a 100 miles per hour tailwind – wind blowing in the same direction as the aircraft’s travel – the aircraft would still be traveling at an airspeed of 500 miles per hour, but its ground speed would be 100 miles faster. And, at 600 miles an hour, the aircraft would reach its destination in just three hours and twenty minutes.
The above is the reason why some flights go “out of their way” to avoid headwinds or catch tailwinds. And, why some flights might appear to be traveling at “supersonic speeds,” even though their airspeed – the speed that would actually matter in determining whether or not the flight truly is supersonic – is subsonic.
The Moving Walkway Analogy
In case you are still unsure about the difference between airspeed and ground speed, here’s an analogy to bring the concepts “down to earth.”
Imagine a moving walkway going from point A to point B moving at 3 miles per hour.
And, imagine you are walking on the walkway at a speed of 3 miles per hour relative to the walkway. In other words, you are moving from point A to point B at a speed of 6 miles per hour – the sum of the speed of the walkway and the speed at which you are walking relative to the walkway.
What if, though, you tried to walk on the walkway from point B to point A?
Obviously, if you walked at 3 miles per hour relative to the walkway, you would be standing still. To move, you would have to walk faster than 3 miles per hour relative to the walkway. For example, if you walked at 5 miles per hour relative to the walkway, you would be moving from point B to point A at a speed of 2 miles per hour.
Finally, if the walkway was broken and wasn’t moving, your speed relative to it would be the same as the speed you would be moving at from point A to point B.
By now, you have probably figured out that in the analogy above, the speed of the walkway takes the place of wind speed, the speed at which you are moving from point A to point B (or vice-versa) is the ground speed, and the speed at which you are moving relative to the walkway is the airspeed.
The Three Types of Airspeed
When I talked about airspeed earlier in this article, I was talking about true airspeed. However, pilots commonly use three different types of airspeed: indicated airspeed, calibrated airspeed, and true airspeed.
Indicated airspeed is an airspeed that is calculated directly off an aircraft’s pitot-static system. It’s the calculated off the aircraft’s dynamic pressure – the difference between its total pressure and static pressure.
The dynamic pressure depends not only on the aircraft’s speed, but also on the density of the air it is flying in. As such, the higher the aircraft flies – and the lower the air density as a result – the bigger the difference between indicated and true airspeed is.
Calibrated airspeed is indicated airspeed adjusted for a variety of errors.
Just as an example, one of the things it’s adjusted for is the flap position. The reason for that is that at different flap positions, air flows differently around the pitot-static system and affects the indicated airspeed readings.
True airspeed is, as has been mentioned numerous times in this article, the actual speed at which an aircraft is moving relative to the air it is traveling in. It’s calibrated airspeed adjusted for the the exact conditions (altitude, air temperature, etc.) that the aircraft is flying in.
For pilots, both airspeed and ground speed are very important. While the first of those helps them make sure they are flying fast enough to take off, not to stall, and so on, the second one helps them figure out how long it will take them to get from one place to another.
On the other hand, if you are a passenger, you will only need to be concerned about the ground speed as that will tell you how fast are you flying from your origin to your destination – how fast you will be able to get to your meeting, meet your relatives, or do whatever else the reason for your travel might be.