How are airplane controls different from the controls in an automobile?

Aerodynamics Read more from
Chapter Fluids

It was on this date that brothers Orville (1871–1948) and Wilbur (1867–1912) Wright warmed up the engines on their Wright 1903 Flyer and took off into the blustery winter air. On its first flight, Orville flew the Flyer for a total of 12 seconds and traveled a distance of 37 meters (120 feet). Later that cold winter day, Wilbur flew for nearly a minute and traveled 260 meters (852 feet). The Wright 1903 Flyer, which weighed only 600 pounds and had a wingspan of 12 meters (40 feet), made only four runs that day. After Wilbur’s 260-meter flight, the wind tossed the plane end over end, breaking the wings, engine, and chain guides.

Automobiles travel on two-dimensional surfaces, and therefore only need two separate controls, the accelerator and brake to control the forward movement, and the steering wheel to control side-to-side movements. Airplanes, on the other hand, travel in three-dimensional space. The forward thrust on an airplane is controlled by the throttle, and the “braking” is achieved by closing the throttle and increasing the drag, usually by deploying the plane’s flaps. Yaw, which is responsible for the side-to-side movement of a plane, is controlled by the plane’s rudder.

To control the pitch, or up-and-down orientation of the nose, the pilot uses elevators or horizontal control surfaces near the plane’s rudder. To roll the plane (the rotation of the plane about an axis that goes from the nose to the tail), the pilot uses control surfaces on the back end of the wings called ailerons. The Wright Brothers recognized that roll control was crucial to successful flight. They invented a method of warping the wings, creating a primitive but useful aileron.


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