Development of an effective set of flight control surfaces was a critical advance in the development of aircraft. Early efforts at fixed-wing aircraft design succeeded in generating sufficient lift to get the aircraft off the ground, but once aloft, the aircraft proved uncontrollable, often with disastrous results. The development of effective flight controls is what allowed stable flight.
This article describes the control surfaces used on a fixed-wing aircraft of conventional design. Other fixed-wing aircraft configurations may use different control surfaces but the basic principles remain. The controls (stick and rudder) for rotary wing aircraft (helicopter or autogyro) accomplish the same motions about the three axes of rotation, but manipulate the rotating flight controls (main rotor disk and tail rotor disk) in a completely different manner.
Flight control surfaces are operated by aircraft flight control systems.
The Wright brothers are credited with developing the first practical control surfaces. It is a main part of their patent on flying. Unlike modern control surfaces, they used wing warping. In an attempt to circumvent the Wright patent, Glenn Curtiss made hinged control surfaces, the same type of concept first patented some four decades earlier in the United Kingdom. Hinged control surfaces have the advantage of not causing stresses that are a problem of wing warping and are easier to build into structures.
An aircraft is free to rotate around three axes that are perpendicular to each other and intersect at its center of gravity (CG). To control position and direction a pilot must be able to control rotation about each of them.
The transverse axis, also known as lateral axis, passes through an aircraft from wingtip to wingtip. Rotation about this axis is called pitch. Pitch changes the vertical direction that the aircraft's nose is pointing. The elevators are the primary control surfaces for pitch.
The longitudinal axis passes through the aircraft from nose to tail. Rotation about this axis is called roll. The angular displacement about this axis is called bank. The pilot changes bank angle by increasing the lift on one wing and decreasing it on the other. This differential lift causes rotation around the longitudinal axis. The ailerons are the primary control of bank. The rudder also has a secondary effect on bank.
The vertical axis passes through an aircraft from top to bottom. Rotation about this axis is called yaw. Yaw changes the direction the aircraft's nose is pointing, left or right. The primary control of yaw is with the rudder. Ailerons also have a secondary effect on yaw.
It is important to note that these axes move with the aircraft, and change relative to the earth as the aircraft moves. For example, for an aircraft whose left wing is pointing straight down, its "vertical" axis is parallel with the ground, while its "transverse" axis is perpendicular to the ground.
The main control surfaces of a fixed-wing aircraft are attached to the airframe on hinges or tracks so they may move and thus deflect the air stream passing over them. This redirection of the air stream generates an unbalanced force to rotate the plane about the associated axis.
Ailerons are mounted on the trailing edge of each wing near the wingtips and move in opposite directions. When the pilot moves the stick left, or turns the wheel counter-clockwise, the left aileron goes up and the right aileron goes down. A raised aileron reduces lift on that wing and a lowered one increases lift, so moving the stick left causes the left wing to drop and the right wing to rise. This causes the aircraft to roll to the left and begin to turn to the left. Centering the stick returns the ailerons to neutral maintaining the bank angle. The aircraft will continue to turn until opposite aileron motion returns the bank angle to zero to fly straight.
The elevator is a moveable part of the horizontal stabilizer, hinged to the back of the fixed part of the horizontal tail. The elevators move up and down together. When the pilot pulls the stick backward, the elevators go up. Pushing the stick forward causes the elevators to go down. Raised elevators push down on the tail and cause the nose to pitch up. This makes the wings fly at a higher angle of attack, which generates more lift and more drag. Centering the stick returns the elevators to neutral and stops the change of pitch. Some aircraft, such as an MD-80, use a servo tab within the elevator surface to aerodynamically move the main surface into position. The direction of travel of the control tab will thus be in a direction opposite to the main control surface. It is for this reason that an MD-80 tail looks like it has a 'split' elevator system.
In the canard arrangement, the elevators are hinged to the rear of a foreplane and move in the opposite sense, for example when the pilot pulls the stick back the elevators go down to increase the lift at the front and lift the nose up.
The rudder is typically mounted on the trailing edge of the vertical stabilizer, part of the empennage. When the pilot pushes the left pedal, the rudder deflects left. Pushing the right pedal causes the rudder to deflect right. Deflecting the rudder right pushes the tail left and causes the nose to yaw to the right. Centering the rudder pedals returns the rudder to neutral and stops the yaw.
The ailerons primarily control roll. Whenever lift is increased, induced drag is also increased. When the stick is moved left to roll the aircraft to the left, the right aileron is lowered which increases lift on the right wing and therefore increases induced drag on the right wing. Using ailerons causes adverse yaw, meaning the nose of the aircraft yaws in a direction opposite to the aileron application. When moving the stick to the left to bank the wings, adverse yaw moves the nose of the aircraft to the right. Adverse yaw is more pronounced for light aircraft with long wings, such as gliders. It is counteracted by the pilot with the rudder. Differential ailerons are ailerons which have been rigged such that the downgoing aileron deflects less than the upward-moving one, reducing adverse yaw.
The rudder is a fundamental control surface which is typically controlled by pedals rather than at the stick. It is the primary means of controlling yaw—the rotation of an airplane about its vertical axis. The rudder may also be called upon to counter-act the adverse yaw produced by the roll-control surfaces.
If rudder is continuously applied in level flight the aircraft will yaw initially in the direction of the applied rudder – the primary effect of rudder. After a few seconds the aircraft will tend to bank in the direction of yaw. This arises initially from the increased speed of the wing opposite to the direction of yaw and the reduced speed of the other wing. The faster wing generates more lift and so rises, while the other wing tends to go down because of generating less lift. Continued application of rudder sustains rolling tendency because the aircraft flying at an angle to the airflow - skidding towards the forward wing. When applying right rudder in an aircraft with dihedral the left hand wing will have increased angle of attack and the right hand wing will have decreased angle of attack which will result in a roll to the right. An aircraft with anhedral will show the opposite effect. This effect of the rudder is commonly used in model aircraft where if sufficient dihedral or polyhedral is included in the wing design, primary roll control such as ailerons may be omitted altogether.
Unlike turning a boat, changing the direction of an aircraft normally must be done with the ailerons rather than the rudder. The rudder turns (yaws) the aircraft but has little effect on its direction of travel. With aircraft, the change in direction is caused by the horizontal component of lift, acting on the wings. The pilot tilts the lift force, which is perpendicular to the wings, in the direction of the intended turn by rolling the aircraft into the turn. As the bank angle is increased, the lifting force can be split into two components: one acting vertically and one acting horizontally.
If the total lift is kept constant, the vertical component of lift will decrease. As the weight of the aircraft is unchanged, this would result in the aircraft descending if not countered. To maintain level flight requires increased positive (up) elevator to increase the angle of attack, increase the total lift generated and keep the vertical component of lift equal with the weight of the aircraft. This cannot continue indefinitely. The total load factor required to maintain level flight is directly related to the bank angle. This means that for a given airspeed, level flight can only be maintained up to a certain given angle of bank. Beyond this angle of bank, the aircraft will suffer an accelerated stall if the pilot attempts to generate enough lift to maintain level flight.
Some aircraft configurations have non-standard primary controls. For example, instead of elevators at the back of the stabilizers, the entire tailplane may change angle. Some aircraft have a tail in the shape of a V, and the moving parts at the back of those combine the functions of elevators and rudder. Delta wing aircraft may have "elevons" at the back of the wing, which combine the functions of elevators and ailerons.
On low drag aircraft such as sailplanes, spoilers are used to disrupt airflow over the wing and greatly reduce lift. This allows a glider pilot to lose altitude without gaining excessive airspeed. Spoilers are sometimes called "lift dumpers". Spoilers that can be used asymmetrically are called spoilerons and can affect an aircraft's roll.
Flaps are mounted on the trailing edge on the inboard section of each wing (near the wing roots). They are deflected down to increase the effective curvature of the wing. Flaps raise the maximum lift coefficient of the aircraft and therefore reduce its stalling speed. They are used during low speed, high angle of attack flight including take-off and descent for landing. Some aircraft are equipped with "flaperons", which are more commonly called "inboard ailerons". These devices function primarily as ailerons, but on some aircraft, will "droop" when the flaps are deployed, thus acting as both a flap and a roll-control inboard aileron.
Slats, also known as leading edge devices, are extensions to the front of a wing for lift augmentation, and are intended to reduce the stalling speed by altering the airflow over the wing. Slats may be fixed or retractable - fixed slats (e.g. as on the Fieseler Fi 156 Storch) give excellent slow speed and STOL capabilities, but compromise higher speed performance. Retractable slats, as seen on most airliners, provide reduced stalling speed for take-off and landing, but are retracted for cruising.
Air brakes are used to increase drag. Spoilers might act as air brakes, but are not pure air brakes as they also function as lift-dumpers or in some cases as roll control surfaces. Air brakes are usually surfaces that deflect outwards from the fuselage (in most cases symmetrically on opposing sides) into the airstream in order to increase form-drag. As they are in most cases located elsewhere on the aircraft, they do not directly affect the lift generated by the wing. Their purpose is to slow down the aircraft. They are particularly useful when a high rate of descent is required. They are common on high performance military aircraft as well as civilian aircraft, especially those lacking reverse thrust capability.
Trimming controls allow a pilot to balance the lift and drag being produced by the wings and control surfaces over a wide range of load and airspeed. This reduces the effort required to adjust or maintain a desired flight attitude.
Elevator trim balances the control force necessary to maintain the correct aerodynamic force on the tail to balance the aircraft. Whilst carrying out certain flight exercises, a lot of trim could be required to maintain the desired angle of attack. This mainly applies to slow flight, where a nose-up attitude is required, in turn requiring a lot of trim causing the tailplane to exert a strong downforce. Elevator trim is correlated with the speed of the airflow over the tail, thus airspeed changes to the aircraft require re-trimming. An important design parameter for aircraft is the stability of the aircraft when trimmed for level flight. Any disturbances such as gusts or turbulence will be damped over a short period of time and the aircraft will return to its level flight trimmed airspeed.
Except for very light aircraft, trim tabs on the elevators are unable to provide the force and range of motion desired. To provide the appropriate trim force the entire horizontal tail plane is made adjustable in pitch. This allows the pilot to select exactly the right amount of positive or negative lift from the tail plane while reducing drag from the elevators.
A control horn is a section of control surface which projects ahead of the pivot point. It generates a force which tends to increase the surface's deflection thus reducing the control pressure experienced by the pilot. Control horns may also incorporate a counterweight which helps to balance the control and prevent it from fluttering in the airstream. Some designs feature separate anti-flutter weights.
In the simplest arrangement, trimming is done by a mechanical spring (or bungee) which adds appropriate force to augment the pilot's control input. The spring is usually connected to an elevator trim lever to allow the pilot to set the spring force applied.
Most fixed-wing aircraft have a trimming control surface on the elevator, but larger aircraft also have a trim control for the rudder, and another for the ailerons. The rudder trim is to counter any asymmetric thrust from the engines. Aileron trim is to counter the effects of the centre of gravity being displaced from the aircraft centerline. This can be caused by fuel or an item of payload being loaded more on one side of the aircraft compared to the other, such as when one fuel tank has more fuel than the other.