How do aircraft brakes work?

As the old saying goes, “what goes up must come down” and it’s no use coming down if you can’t stop safely.

Bringing at aircraft down to the runway from 37,000 feet is only part of the challenge. It’s not over until the aircraft is safely parked at its gate. In order to do this, pilots have a number of systems available to slow the aircraft down, even in a blizzard on a snow-covered runway.

This is how we do it.

The 787 braking system

Stopping a 200-tonne aircraft landing at 180 mph requires a lot of braking force. To do this, the 787 has one brake unit on each of the eight wheels on the main gear assembly. On other aircraft types, the brake units are powered by the hydraulics system. An electrical signal is sent from the flight deck to hydraulic actuators near the main landing gear. Here, hydraulic fluid at 3,000 pound per square inch is used to force the brake unit against the wheel, thus slowing it down.

This system works fine, but the pipes and actuators that form this part of the hydraulic system come at a considerable weight cost. Extra weight means more fuel burn, which in turn increases costs and carbon emissions. What if the brakes could be powered a different way?

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