Airplane Flight Controls

Updated: Apr 20

Airplane Flight Controls Lesson by wifiCFI

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Flight Controls (PHAK C6)

This chapter focuses on the flight control systems a pilot uses to control the forces of flight and the aircraft’s direction and attitude. It should be noted that flight control systems and characteristics can vary greatly depending on the type of aircraft flown. Aircraft flight control systems consist of primary and secondary systems.

Primary Flight Controls

  • Ailerons

  • Elevator (Stabilator)

  • Rudder

Secondary Flight Controls

  • Wing Flaps

  • Leading Edge Devices

  • Spoilers

  • Trim


Ailerons control roll about the longitudinal axis. The ailerons are attached to the outboard trailing edge of each wing and move in the opposite direction from each other. Ailerons are connected by cables, bellcranks, pulleys, and/or push-pull tubes to a control wheel or control stick. Moving the control wheel, or control stick, to the right causes the right aileron to deflect upward and the left aileron to deflect downward.

The 4 Types:

  1. Differential Ailerons

  2. Frise-Type Ailerons

  3. Coupled Ailerons and Rudder

  4. Flaperons

Differential Ailerons

With differential ailerons, one aileron is raised a greater distance than the other aileron and is lowered for a given movement of the control wheel or control stick. This produces an increase in drag on the descending wing. 

The greater drag results from deflecting the up aileron on the descending wing to a greater angle than the down aileron on the rising wing. While adverse yaw is reduced, it is not eliminated completely. 

Frise-Type Ailerons

With a frise-type aileron, when pressure is applied to the control wheel, or control stick, the aileron that is being raised pivots on an offset hinge. This projects the leading edge of the aileron into the airflow and creates drag. It helps equalize the drag created by the lowered aileron on the opposite wing and reduces adverse yaw.

Coupled Ailerons and Rudder

Coupled ailerons and rudder are linked controls. This is accomplished with rudder-aileron interconnect springs, which help correct for aileron drag by automatically deflecting the rudder at the same time the ailerons are deflected.


Flaperons combine both aspects of flaps and ailerons. In addition to controlling the bank angle of an aircraft like conventional ailerons, flaperons can be lowered together to function much the same as a dedicated set of flaps. The pilot retains separate controls for ailerons and flaps.


The elevator controls pitch about the lateral axis. Like the ailerons on small aircraft, the elevator is connected to the control column in the flight deck by a series of mechanical linkages. Aft movement of the control column deflects the trailing edge of the elevator surface up. This is usually referred to as the up-elevator position.

Elevator T-Tail

In a T-tail configuration, the elevator is above most of the effects of downwash from the propeller, as well as airflow around the fuselage and/or wings during normal flight conditions. Operation of the elevators in this undisturbed air allows control movements that are consistent throughout most flight regimes.


A stabilator is essentially a one-piece horizontal stabilizer that pivots from a central hinge point. When the control column is pulled back, it raises the stabilator’s trailing edge, pulling the nose of the aircraft. Pushing the control column forward lowers the trailing edge of the stabilator and pitches the nose of the aircraft down. 

Because stabilators pivot around a central hinge point, they are extremely sensitive to control inputs and aerodynamic loads. Antiservo tabs are incorporated on the trailing edge to decrease sensitivity.


The canard design utilizes the concept of two lifting surfaces. The canard functions as a horizontal stabilizer located in front of the main wings. In effect, the canard is an airfoil similar to the horizontal surface on a conventional aft-tail design. 

The difference is that the canard actually creates lift and holds the nose up, as opposed to the aft-tail design which exerts downward force on the tail to prevent the nose from rotating downward.


The rudder controls movement of the aircraft about its vertical axis. This motion is called yaw. Like the other primary control surfaces, the rudder is a movable surface hinged to a fixed surface in this case, to the vertical stabilizer or fin. The rudder is controlled by the left and right rudder pedals. When the rudder is deflected into the airflow, a horizontal force is exerted in the opposite direction.

The V-Tail Design

The V-tail design utilizes two slanted tail surfaces to perform the same functions as the surfaces of a conventional elevator and rudder configuration. The fixed surfaces act as both horizontal and vertical stabilizers. The movable surfaces, which are usually called ruddervators, are connected through a special linkage that allows the control wheel to move both surfaces simultaneously. On the other hand, displacement of the rudder pedals moves the surfaces differentially, thereby providing directional control.