Roll, Pitch, and Yaw

How is Controlling an Airplane Different than Controlling a Car or Boat?

Stability and control are much more complex for an airplane, which can move freely in three dimensions, than for cars or boats, which only move in two. A change in any one of the three types of motion affects the other two.

What are Roll, Pitch, and Yaw?

Imagine three lines running through an airplane and intersecting at right angles at the airplane’s center of gravity.

  • Rotation around the front-to-back axis is called roll.
  • Rotation around the side-to-side axis is called pitch.
  • Rotation around the vertical axis is called yaw.

Maintaining Control

  • The Ailerons Control Roll
    On the outer rear edge of each wing, the two ailerons move in opposite directions, up and down, decreasing lift on one wing while increasing it on the other. This causes the airplane to roll to the left or right. To turn the airplane, the pilot uses the ailerons to tilt the wings in the desired direction.
  • The Elevator Controls Pitch
    On the horizontal tail surface, the elevator tilts up or down, decreasing or increasing lift on the tail. This tilts the nose of the airplane up and down.
  • The Rudder Controls Yaw
    On the vertical tail fin, the rudder swivels from side to side, pushing the tail in a left or right direction. A pilot usually uses the rudder along with the ailerons to turn the airplane.

Ask an Explainer


What are flaps used for?


Flaps are located on the trailing edge of each wing, usually between the fuselage and the ailerons, and extend downward (and often outward) from the wing when put into use. The purpose of the flaps is to generate more lift at slower airspeed, which enables the airplane to fly at a greatly reduced speed with a lower risk of stalling. This is especially useful during takeoff and landing. ... more

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Did You Know?

One of the major breakthroughs of the Wright brothers was their ability to control roll in their aircraft. The 1903 Wright Flyer didn’t have ailerons, so roll control was provided by a unique idea they called wing warping. Wilbur hit upon this idea while twisting a cardboard box from a bicycle inner tube as he chatted with a customer in the brothers’ shop. The tips of the wings were twisted (warped) like the box by a series of pulleys and cables.

Pop Quiz

Which of the following control surfaces does a pilot use to change altitude (move the nose up or down)?

A) Ailerons
B) Elevator
C) Rudder
D) None of the Above

Elevator: The elevator is the small moving section on the trailing edge of the horizontal tail surface that controls pitch.  Moving the elevator up decreases the amount of lift generated by the horizontal tail surface and pitches the nose up, causing the airplane to climb.  Moving the elevator down increases the amount of lift generated by the horizontal tail surface and pitches the nose down, causing the airplane to dive.