In order to understand the operation of the major components and subcomponents of an aircraft, it is important to understand basic aerodynamic concepts. This post briefly introduces aerodynamics; a more detailed explanation can be found in Aerodynamics of Flight.

Four forces act upon an aircraft in relation to straight-and level, unaccelerated flight. These forces are thrust, lift, weight, and drag. [Figure 1]
Lift and Basic Aerodynamics
Figure -1. The four forces
Thrust is the forward force produced by the powerplant/ propeller. It opposes or overcomes the force of drag. As a general rule, it is said to act parallel to the longitudinal axis. This is not always the case as explained later.
Drag is a rearward, retarding force and is caused by disruption of airflow by the wing, fuselage, and other protruding objects. Drag opposes thrust and acts rearward parallel to the relative wind.
Weight is the combined load of the aircraft itself, the crew, the fuel, and the cargo or baggage. Weight pulls the aircraft downward because of the force of gravity. It opposes lift and acts vertically downward through the aircraft’s center of gravity (CG).

Lift opposes the downward force of weight, is produced by the dynamic effect of the air acting on the wing, and acts perpendicular to the flight path through the wing’s center of lift (CL).
An aircraft moves in three dimensions and is controlled by moving it about one or more of its axes. The longitudinal, or roll, axis extends through the aircraft from nose to tail, with the line passing through the CG. The lateral or pitch axis extends across the aircraft on a line through the wing tips, again passing through the CG. The vertical, or yaw, axis passes through the aircraft vertically, intersecting the CG. All control movements cause the aircraft to move around one or more of these axes and allows for the control of the aircraft in flight. [Figure 2]
Lift and Basic Aerodynamics
Figure 2. Illustrates the pitch, roll, and yaw motion of the aircraft along the lateral, longitudinal, and vertical axes, respectively
One of the most significant components of aircraft design is CG. It is the specific point where the mass or weight of an aircraft may be said to center; that is, a point around which, if the aircraft could be suspended or balanced, the aircraft would remain relatively level. The position of the CG of an aircraft determines the stability of the aircraft in flight. As the CG moves rearward (towards the tail), the aircraft becomes more and more dynamically unstable. In aircraft with fuel tanks situated in front of the CG, it is important that the CG is set with the fuel tank empty. Otherwise, as the fuel is used, the aircraft becomes unstable. [Figure 3] The CG is computed during initial design and construction and is further affected by the installation of onboard equipment, aircraft loading, and other factors.
Lift and Basic Aerodynamics
Figure 3. Center of gravity (CG)