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I have always considered летающий the derived adjective/active participle of летать. However, today I came across the following passage:

В него попал какой-то летящий обломок.

He was pelted by some piece of flying debris.

Are they in fact interchangeable, or is this a typo? If not, what is the difference, if any, in their usage?

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Летающий and летящий are formed from two different verbs: летать and лететь (the former being an iterative for the latter).

It's similar to English "sniffle / sniff, shuffle / shove" etc.

However, this particular iterative participle also acquired an idiomatic meaning: it means not only "flying repeatedly" but also "able to fly".

Adjectives meaning "able to" or "inherently doing smth." are in number of cases formed by using suffix -уч/-юч: горючий / горящий, кипучий / кипящий, гремучий / гремящий etc., летучий / летящий being no exception.

So летающий has two meanings:

  1. Adjective "able to fly", synonymous to летучий: летающая тарелка "flying saucer", летающая крепость "flying fortress".

  2. Participle "flying repeatedly or continuously": Летающий в ночи "The Night Flier", часто летающий пассажир "frequent flier" etc.

Летящий is a participle meaning "flying at the moment": астероид, летящий по направлению к Земле "an asteroid flying towards Earth".

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Летящий - means flying right now.
Examples:

Летящий обломок
Самолет, летящий в южном направлении


Летающий - means able to fly.
Examples:

Летающий кран
Самолет, ежедневно летающий по маршруту Москва - Нью-Йорк

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  • Thank you. However, by your definition, I would expect it to be: самолет, ежеднвно летящий по маршруту Москва - Нью-Йорк,since it currently flies that route, no?
    – CocoPop
    Jan 26 '16 at 20:43
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    @CocoPop - Летающий can also mean "flying there and back, flying back and forth": У меня есть друг, часто летающий в Лондон, and also "flying around": Вороны, летающие над лесом, громко каркали.
    – Yellow Sky
    Jan 26 '16 at 20:56
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    @CocoPop No. ежедневно means everyday and it doesn't imply that it flies right now.
    – Dmitry
    Jan 26 '16 at 20:56

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