Aircraft Design Characteristics (Part Two)

Lateral Stability (Rolling)

Stability about the aircraft’s longitudinal axis, which extends from the nose of the aircraft to its tail, is called lateral stability. Positive lateral stability helps to stabilize the lateral or “rolling effect” when one wing gets lower than the wing on the opposite side of the aircraft. There are four main design factors that make an aircraft laterally stable: dihedral, sweepback, keel effect, and weight distribution.

Figure 5-28. Dihedral is the upward angle of the wings from a horizontal (front/rear view) axis of the plane as shown in the graphic depiction and the rear view of a Ryanair Boeing 737.

Figure 5-28. Dihedral is the upward angle of the wings from a horizontal (front/rear view) axis of the plane as shown in the graphic depiction and the rear view of a Ryanair Boeing 737.


Some aircraft are designed so that the outer tips of the wings are higher than the wing roots. The upward angle thus formed by the wings is called dihedral. [Figure 5-28] When a gust causes a roll, a sideslip will result. This sideslip causes the relative wind affecting the entire airplane to be from the direction of the slip. When the relative wind comes from the side, the wing slipping into the wind is subject to an increase in AOA and develops an increase in lift. The wing away from the wind is subject to a decrease in angle of attack, and develops a decrease in lift. The changes in lift effect a rolling moment tending to raise the windward wing, hence dihedral contributes to a stable roll due to sideslip. [Figure 5-29]

Figure 5-29. Sideslip causing different AOA on each blade.

Figure 5-29. Sideslip causing different AOA on each blade.

Sweepback and Wing Location

Many aspects of an aircraft’s configuration can affect its effective dihedral, but two major components are wing sweepback and the wing location with respect to the fuselage (such as a low wing or high wing). As a rough estimation, 10° of sweepback on a wing provides about 1° of effective dihedral, while a high wing configuration can provide about 5° of effective dihedral over a low wing configuration.

Figure 5-30. Sweepback wings.

Figure 5-30. Sweepback wings.

A sweptback wing is one in which the leading edge slopes backward. [Figure 5-30] When a disturbance causes an aircraft with sweepback to slip or drop a wing, the low wing presents its leading edge at an angle that is more perpendicular to the relative airflow. As a result, the low wing acquires more lift, rises, and the aircraft is restored to its original flight attitude.

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Keel Effect and Weight Distribution

A high wing aircraft always has the tendency to turn the longitudinal axis of the aircraft into the relative wind, which is often referred to as the keel effect. These aircraft are laterally stable simply because the wings are attached in a high position on the fuselage, making the fuselage behave like a keel exerting a steadying influence on the aircraft laterally about the longitudinal axis. When a high-winged aircraft is disturbed and one wing dips, the fuselage weight acts like a pendulum returning the aircraft to the horizontal level.

Laterally stable aircraft are constructed so that the greater portion of the keel area is above the CG. [Figure 5-31] Thus, when the aircraft slips to one side, the combination of the aircraft’s weight and the pressure of the airflow against the upper portion of the keel area (both acting about the CG) tends to roll the aircraft back to wings-level flight.

Figure 5-31. Keel area for lateral stability.

Figure 5-31. Keel area for lateral stability.

Directional Stability (Yawing)

Stability about the aircraft’s vertical axis (the sideways moment) is called yawing or directional stability. Yawing or directional stability is the most easily achieved stability in aircraft design. The area of the vertical fin and the sides of the fuselage aft of the CG are the prime contributors that make the aircraft act like the well known weather vane or arrow, pointing its nose into the relative wind.

In examining a weather vane, it can be seen that if exactly the same amount of surface were exposed to the wind in front of the pivot point as behind it, the forces fore and aft would be in balance and little or no directional movement would result. Consequently, it is necessary to have a greater surface aft of the pivot point than forward of it.

Similarly, the aircraft designer must ensure positive directional stability by making the side surface greater aft than ahead of the CG. [Figure 5-32] To provide additional positive stability to that provided by the fuselage, a vertical fin is added. The fin acts similar to the feather on an arrow in maintaining straight flight. Like the weather vane and the arrow, the farther aft this fin is placed and the larger its size, the greater the aircraft’s directional stability.

Figure 5-32. Fuselage and fin for directional stability.

Figure 5-32. Fuselage and fin for directional stability.

If an aircraft is flying in a straight line, and a sideward gust of air gives the aircraft a slight rotation about its vertical axis (i.e., the right), the motion is retarded and stopped by the fin because while the aircraft is rotating to the right, the air is striking the left side of the fin at an angle. This causes pressure on the left side of the fin, which resists the turning motion and slows down the aircraft’s yaw. In doing so, it acts somewhat like the weather vane by turning the aircraft into the relative wind. The initial change in direction of the aircraft’s flight path is generally slightly behind its change of heading. Therefore, after a slight yawing of the aircraft to the right, there is a brief moment when the aircraft is still moving along its original path, but its longitudinal axis is pointed slightly to the right.

The aircraft is then momentarily skidding sideways and, during that moment (since it is assumed that although the yawing motion has stopped, the excess pressure on the left side of the fin still persists), there is necessarily a tendency for the aircraft to be turned partially back to the left. That is, there is a momentary restoring tendency caused by the fin.


This restoring tendency is relatively slow in developing and ceases when the aircraft stops skidding. When it ceases, the aircraft is flying in a direction slightly different from the original direction. In other words, it will not return of its own accord to the original heading; the pilot must reestablish the initial heading.

A minor improvement of directional stability may be obtained through sweepback. Sweepback is incorporated in the design of the wing primarily to delay the onset of compressibility during high-speed flight. In lighter and slower aircraft, sweepback aids in locating the center of pressure in the correct relationship with the CG. A longitudinally stable aircraft is built with the center of pressure aft of the CG.

Because of structural reasons, aircraft designers sometimes cannot attach the wings to the fuselage at the exact desired point. If they had to mount the wings too far forward, and at right angles to the fuselage, the center of pressure would not be far enough to the rear to result in the desired amount of longitudinal stability. By building sweepback into the wings, however, the designers can move the center of pressure toward the rear. The amount of sweepback and the position of the wings then place the center of pressure in the correct location.

When turbulence or rudder application causes the aircraft to yaw to one side, the opposite wing presents a longer leading edge perpendicular to the relative airflow. The airspeed of the forward wing increases and it acquires more drag than the back wing. The additional drag on the forward wing pulls the wing back, turning the aircraft back to its original path.

The contribution of the wing to static directional stability is usually small. The swept wing provides a stable contribution depending on the amount of sweepback, but the contribution is relatively small when compared with other components.

Free Directional Oscillations (Dutch Roll)

Dutch roll is a coupled lateral/directional oscillation that is usually dynamically stable but is unsafe in an aircraft because of the oscillatory nature. The damping of the oscillatory mode may be weak or strong depending on the properties of the particular aircraft.

If the aircraft has a right wing pushed down, the positive sideslip angle corrects the wing laterally before the nose is realigned with the relative wind. As the wing corrects the position, a lateral directional oscillation can occur resulting in the nose of the aircraft making a figure eight on the horizon as a result of two oscillations (roll and yaw), which, although of about the same magnitude, are out of phase with each other.

In most modern aircraft, except high-speed swept wing designs, these free directional oscillations usually die out automatically in very few cycles unless the air continues to be gusty or turbulent. Those aircraft with continuing Dutch roll tendencies are usually equipped with gyro-stabilized yaw dampers. Manufacturers try to reach a midpoint between too much and too little directional stability. Because it is more desirable for the aircraft to have “spiral instability” than Dutch roll tendencies, most aircraft are designed with that characteristic.


Spiral Instability

Spiral instability exists when the static directional stability of the aircraft is very strong as compared to the effect of its dihedral in maintaining lateral equilibrium. When the lateral equilibrium of the aircraft is disturbed by a gust of air and a sideslip is introduced, the strong directional stability tends to yaw the nose into the resultant relative wind while the comparatively weak dihedral lags in restoring the lateral balance. Due to this yaw, the wing on the outside of the turning moment travels forward faster than the inside wing and, as a consequence, its lift becomes greater. This produces an overbanking tendency which, if not corrected by the pilot, results in the bank angle becoming steeper and steeper. At the same time, the strong directional stability that yaws the aircraft into the relative wind is actually forcing the nose to a lower pitch attitude. A slow downward spiral begins which, if not counteracted by the pilot, gradually increases into a steep spiral dive. Usually the rate of divergence in the spiral motion is so gradual the pilot can control the tendency without any difficulty.

Many aircraft are affected to some degree by this characteristic, although they may be inherently stable in all other normal parameters. This tendency explains why an aircraft cannot be flown “hands off” indefinitely.

Much research has gone into the development of control devices (wing leveler) to correct or eliminate this instability. The pilot must be careful in application of recovery controls during advanced stages of this spiral condition or excessive loads may be imposed on the structure. Improper recovery from spiral instability leading to inflight structural failures has probably contributed to more fatalities in general aviation aircraft than any other factor. Since the airspeed in the spiral condition builds up rapidly, the application of back elevator force to reduce this speed and to pull the nose up only “tightens the turn,” increasing the load factor. The results of the prolonged uncontrolled spiral are inflight structural failure, crashing into the ground, or both. Common recorded causes for pilots who get into this situation are loss of horizon reference, inability to control the aircraft by reference to instruments, or a combination of both.

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