High Speed Flight (Part Four) High Speed Flight Controls

High Speed Flight Controls

On high-speed aircraft, flight controls are divided into primary flight controls and secondary or auxiliary flight controls. The primary flight controls maneuver the aircraft about the pitch, roll, and yaw axes. They include the ailerons, elevator, and rudder. Secondary or auxiliary flight controls include tabs, leading edge flaps, trailing edge flaps, spoilers, and slats.


Spoilers are used on the upper surface of the wing to spoil or reduce lift. High speed aircraft, due to their clean low drag design, use spoilers as speed brakes to slow them down. Spoilers are extended immediately after touchdown to dump lift and thus transfer the weight of the aircraft from the wings onto the wheels for better braking performance. [Figure 5-71]

Figure 5-71. Control surfaces.

Figure 5-71. Control surfaces. [click image to enlarge]

Jet transport aircraft have small ailerons. The space for ailerons is limited because as much of the wing trailing edge as possible is needed for flaps. Also, a conventional size aileron would cause wing twist at high speed. For that reason, spoilers are used in unison with ailerons to provide additional roll control.

Some jet transports have two sets of ailerons, a pair of outboard low-speed ailerons and a pair of high-speed inboard ailerons. When the flaps are fully retracted after takeoff, the outboard ailerons are automatically locked out in the faired position.

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When used for roll control, the spoiler on the side of the up-going aileron extends and reduces the lift on that side, causing the wing to drop. If the spoilers are extended as speed brakes, they can still be used for roll control. If they are the differential type, they extend further on one side and retract on the other side. If they are the non-differential type, they extend further on one side but do not retract on the other side. When fully extended as speed brakes, the non-differential spoilers remain extended and do not supplement the ailerons.

To obtain a smooth stall and a higher AOA without airflow separation, the wing’s leading edge should have a wellrounded almost blunt shape that the airflow can adhere to at the higher AOA. With this shape, the airflow separation starts at the trailing edge and progresses forward gradually as AOA is increased.

The pointed leading edge necessary for high-speed flight results in an abrupt stall and restricts the use of trailing edge flaps because the airflow cannot follow the sharp curve around the wing leading edge. The airflow tends to tear loose rather suddenly from the upper surface at a moderate AOA. To utilize trailing edge flaps, and thus increase the CL-MAX, the wing must go to a higher AOA without airflow separation. Therefore, leading edge slots, slats, and flaps are used to improve the low-speed characteristics during takeoff, climb, and landing. Although these devices are not as powerful as trailing edge flaps, they are effective when used full span in combination with high-lift trailing edge flaps. With the aid of these sophisticated high-lift devices, airflow separation is delayed and the CL-MAX is increased considerably. In fact, a 50 knot reduction in stall speed is not uncommon.


The operational requirements of a large jet transport aircraft necessitate large pitch trim changes. Some requirements are:

  • A large CG range
  • A large speed range
  • The ability to perform large trim changes due to wing leading edge and trailing edge high-lift devices without limiting the amount of elevator remaining
  • Maintaining trim drag to a minimum

These requirements are met by the use of a variable incidence horizontal stabilizer. Large trim changes on a fixed-tail aircraft require large elevator deflections. At these large deflections, little further elevator movement remains in the same direction. A variable incidence horizontal stabilizer is designed to take out the trim changes. The stabilizer is larger than the elevator, and consequently does not need to be moved through as large an angle. This leaves the elevator streamlining the tail plane with a full range of movement up and down. The variable incidence horizontal stabilizer can be set to handle the bulk of the pitch control demand, with the elevator handling the rest. On aircraft equipped with a variable incidence horizontal stabilizer, the elevator is smaller and less effective in isolation than it is on a fixed-tail aircraft. In comparison to other flight controls, the variable incidence horizontal stabilizer is enormously powerful in its effect.

Because of the size and high speeds of jet transport aircraft, the forces required to move the control surfaces can be beyond the strength of the pilot. Consequently, the control surfaces are actuated by hydraulic or electrical power units. Moving the controls in the flight deck signals the control angle required, and the power unit positions the actual control surface. In the event of complete power unit failure, movement of the control surface can be affected by manually controlling the control tabs. Moving the control tab upsets the aerodynamic balance, which causes the control surface to move.

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