Share

Control Surfaces

How Does a Pilot Control an Airplane?

Moveable surfaces on an airplane’s wings and tail allow a pilot to maneuver an airplane and control its attitude or orientation. These control surfaces work on the same principle as lift on a wing. They create a difference in air pressure to produce a force on the airplane in a desired direction.

Controlled Flight

Maintaining Stability

The main purpose of the tail is to provide stability. If tilted by a gust of wind, a stable airplane tends to recover, just as a ball lying at the bottom of a bowl will roll back to the center after being disturbed.

What Is an Airplane’s “Tail Fin” For?

A vertical stabilizer, or tail fin, keeps the airplane lined up with its direction of motion. Air presses against both its surfaces with equal force when the airplane is moving straight ahead. But if the airplane pivots to the right or left, air pressure increases on one side of the stabilizer and decreases on the other. This imbalance in pressure pushes the tail back into line.

What Is an Airplane’s “Rear Wing” For?

Like the vertical stabilizer, the horizontal stabilizer helps keep the airplane aligned with its direction of motion. If the airplane tilts up or down, air pressure increases on one side of the stabilizer and decreases on the other, pushing it back to its original position. The stabilizer also holds the tail down, countering the tendency of the nose to tilt downward—a result of the airplane’s center of gravity being forward of the wing’s center of lift.

Ask an Explainer

Q:

What keeps an airplane from rolling over?

A:

To help make turning easier, an airplane is usually less stable along its roll axis than along its pitch and yaw axes. Several factors help the pilot keep the wings level: the inclined mounting of the wings, the position of the wings above or below the fuselage, the swept-back shape of the wings, and the vertical stabilizer. ... more

Submit a Question See All Questions and Answers

Did You Know?

Not all airplanes are designed to be as stable as possible. Stable airplanes, such as airliners, are easier to fly but harder to maneuver. Less-stable ones, such as fighters, are harder to fly but respond quicker to their controls, turn faster, and maneuver better.

Pop Quiz

Which of the following aircraft is not stable?

A) Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22
B) Boeing 747
C) Cessna 172
D) None of the Above

Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22: The Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22 Raptor is a single-seat, twin-engine highly maneuverable fighter aircraft.  Fighter aircraft are designed to be unstable to make them more agile.  But this also makes them harder to control.  Fighter aircraft use computers to help correct their flight path, making it possible for the pilot to control an unstable aircraft.