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Essentially there are 4 aerodynamic forces that act on an airplane in flight;
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these are lift, drag, thrust and gravity (or weight). The Beginner's Guide To
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- feedback The thrust is generated by the airplane's engine (propeller or jet), gravity is a
- link to RCAW natural force acting upon the airplane and drag comes from friction as the
plane moves through air molecules. Drag is also a reaction to lift, and this lift
Pete's ebooks
must be generated by the airplane in flight. This is done by the wing of the

http://www.rc-airplane-world.com/how-airplanes-fly.html 1/1/2011
Learn How Airplanes Fly Page 2 of 5

The generation of lift is a widely discussed and sometimes disputed theory, but
there are some key factors that nobody argues. A cross section of a typical
airplane wing will show the top surface to be more curved than the bottom
surface. This shaped profile is called an 'airfoil' (or 'aerofoil') and the shape
exists because it's long been proven (since the dawn of flight...) that an airfoil
generates significantly more lift than opposing drag.

During flight air naturally flows over and beneath the wing, and is deflected
upwards over the top surface and downwards beneath the lower surface. Any
difference in deflection causes a difference in pressure ('pressure gradient'),
and because of the airfoil shape the pressure of the deflected air is lower
above the airfoil than below it, hence the wing is 'pushed' upwards by the
higher pressure.

One of the argued theories of lift generation is related to Newton's 3rd Law of
Action & Reaction, whereby the air being deflected downwards off the lower
surface of the wing creates an opposite reaction, effectively pushing the wing
upwards. This may well be the case, but it's the pressure difference between
both surfaces that is the primary factor of lift generation.


Above, the movement of air over an airfoil

See also

If you want to generate some lift yourself, try holding a sheet of paper in front Related pages include...
of your face and blowing hard over its top surface. The air molecules above RC airplane controls - which
the sheet get deflected differently to those below as you blow, so a pressure 'channels' do what on an rc
gradient appears and the higher pressure below the paper pushes it up... airplane.

How helicopters fly - read

how these machines stay in
the air.

RC helicopter controls - the

complexities of helicopter
controls explained.

RC airplanes - index page

for all rc airplane pages of
this site.

Above, have a go at generating some lift yourself!

The faster a wing moves through the air, so the actions are exaggerated and
more lift is generated.

However, a direct reaction to lift is drag and this too increases with airspeed.
So airfoils need to be designed in a way that maximizes lift but minimizes
drag, in order to be efficient.

A crucial factor of lift generation is the Angle of Attack - this is the angle at
which the wing sits in relation to the horizontal airflow over it. As the angle of
attack increases, so more lift is generated - but only up to a point until the
smooth airflow over the wing is broken up and so the generation of lift cannot
be sustained. When this happens, the sudden loss of lift will result in the
airplane entering into a stall, where the weight of the airplane cannot be
supported any longer.

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Learn How Airplanes Fly Page 3 of 5

Airplane control surfaces

For an airplane to be controllable, control surfaces are necessary. The 4 main

surfaces are ailerons, elevator, rudder and flaps as shown below:

To understand how each works upon the airplane, imagine 3 lines (axis - the
blue dashed lines in the picture above) running through the plane. One runs
through the center of the fuselage from nose to tail (longitudinal axis), one
runs from side to side (lateral axis) and the other runs vertically (vertical axis).
All 3 axis pass through the Center of Gravity (CG), the airplane's crucial point
of balance.

When the airplane is in forward flight, it will rotate around each axis when
movement to any control surface is made by the pilot. The table below shows
the appropriate actions...

Action: Axis: Controlled by:

Roll Longitudinal Ailerons

Pitch Lateral Elevators

Yaw Vertical Rudder

The following sections explain how each control surface effects the airplane...


Located on the trailing edge (rear) of the wing, the ailerons control the
airplane's roll about its longitudinal axis. Each aileron moves at the same time
but in opposite directions ie when the left aileron moves up, the right aileron
moves down and vice versa.
This movement causes a slight decrease in lift on the wingtip with the upward
moving aileron, while the opposite wingtip experiences a slight increase in lift.
Because of this subtle change in lift, the airplane is forced to roll in the
appropriate direction ie when the pilot moves the stick left, the left aileron will

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Learn How Airplanes Fly Page 4 of 5

rise and the airplane will roll left in response to the change in lift on each
The ailerons are controlled by a left/right movement of the control stick, or


The rudder is located on the back edge of the vertical stabilizer, or fin, and is
controlled by 2 pedals at the pilot's feet. When the pilot pushes the left pedal,
the rudder moves to the left. The air flowing over the fin now pushes harder
against the left side of the rudder, forcing the nose of the airplane to yaw
round to the left.


The elevators are located on the rear half of the tailplane, or horizontal
stabilizer. Like the ailerons, they cause a subtle change in lift when movement
is applied which raises or lowers the tail surface accordingly. In addition, air
hitting deflected elevators does so in the same way as it hits the rudder ie
with exaggerated effect that forces the airplane to tilt upwards or downwards.
Moving the elevator up (pulling back on the yoke) will cause the airplane to
pitch its nose up and climb, while moving them down (pushing forward on the
yoke) will cause the airplane to pitch the nose down and dive. Elevators are
linked directly to each other, so work in unison unlike ailerons.

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Learn How Airplanes Fly Page 5 of 5


Flaps are located on the trailing edge of each wing, between the fuselage and
the ailerons, and extend outward and downward from the wing when put into
The purpose of the flaps is to generate more lift at slower airspeed, which
enables the airplane to fly at a greatly reduced speed with a lower risk of
stalling. When extended further flaps also generate more drag which slows the
airplane down much faster than just reducing throttle power.
Although the risk of stalling is always present, an airplane has to be flying very
slowly to stall when flaps are in use at, for example, 10 degrees deflection.

So all these factors are why and how airplanes fly. Radio control model
airplanes can of course be more simple - for example, just have rudder and
elevator control or perhaps just rudder and motor control. But the same
fundamental principles always apply to all airplanes, regardless of size, shape
and design.

Search for books on how airplanes fly.

Related pages

RC airplane controls - which 'channels' do what on an rc airplane.

How helicopters fly - read how these machines stay in the air.

RC helicopter controls - the complexities of helicopter controls explained.

RC airplanes - index page for all rc airplane pages of this site.

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