What is the Difference Between Airplanes and Aircraft?

turbine engine

Asking the difference between ‘airplanes’ and ‘aircraft’ is like asking, “What is the difference between apes and gorillas?” – All gorillas are apes; but not all apes are gorillas.  The same holds true for airplanes and aircraft – all airplanes are aircraft; but not all aircraft are airplanes.  But let’s break down the differences between these two terms, a bit more clearly.


Airplanes and Aircraft – Not Synonymous

In a nutshell, an aircraft is any object that has the ability to fly, either through mechanical means or via the forces of lift.  Aircraft would include not only commercial and private airplanes, but the following:

  • hot-air balloons
  • helicopters
  • rotor-craft
  • drones
  • aerostats (moored balloons which are designed for civil or military use)
  • gliders
  • amphibians (much like sea-planes)
  • hang-gliders
  • gyro-planes
  • powered parachutes
  • airships (blimps and derigibles)

Each of these examples is a type of aircraft, making it easy to see that not all aircraft are simply airplanes.  Notice that communications satellites, interplanetary spacecraft, manned spacecraft, space-stations and orbiters are not included within the ‘aircraft’ list.  This is because aircraft fly only through the air while all types of space-craft fly within the outer reaches of space.

The generic term, ‘aircraft’, obviously, includes a wide variety of flying objects.  And speaking of ‘flying objects’, UFO buffs consider UFO’s to be aircraft as well as spacecraft.  The very first aircraft were kites – yes, in some aeronautical circles, kites qualify as aircraft – which, interestingly, were utilized thousands of years ago in China for signaling and military communications.  Next, in the evolution of aircraft, were hot-air balloons.  Though some people might argue that any object that flies or glides without some type of engine is not truly a type of aircraft, the debate over semantics is an ongoing one.  The specific term, ‘airplane’ is strictly confined, however, to fixed-wing aircraft where thrust is generated by an engine or propeller.


Is Every Commercial Plane an Airbus?

Interestingly, ‘commercial plane’ and ‘airbus’ are used interchangeably and are considered to be synonymous by many laypeople outside of the aeronautics arena.  It is important to point out that ‘Airbus’ is a brand name, and not a generic term, such as ‘commercial plane’.  If we compare the physical characteristics of a Boeing aircraft and an Airbus aircraft, we discover some interesting differences. As a side note, Airbus and Boeing are two major companies that dominate the current airplane market – Boeing is American and Airbus is European.

Here are only three differences between a Boeing 737 airliner and an Airbus A320:

Nose:  Upon close inspection, one would notice the Boeing with a more-pointed nose, while the Airbus possesses a nose portion that is much more rounded and bulb-like, in appearance.

Cockpit Windows:  The edge configuration of the cock pit windows are a dead giveaway between both aircraft – with the Boeing, cockpit windows possess sharp, diagonal corners; and Airbus cockpit windows take on a more-square shape that actually appear ‘friendlier’.

Engines:  Airbus craft, usually, have the engines placed under the wings while the Boeing aircraft have engines positioned on the forward of the wings.

After it is all said and done, regardless of what type of aircraft one is referring to, there is one thing all aircraft have in common, whether simple or complex:  the power of man’s inventive imagination and the magnificence of engineering of all aircraft throughout the ages is to be marveled, respected, and held with absolute awe.