Aircraft are advanced flying machines, relying on the manipulation of airflow and aerodynamics to achieve lift, manage attitude, and more. Aircraft flight control systems are paramount for the management of direction, and they comprise a number of primary and secondary systems. While primary control surfaces are crucial for flight management, the secondary flight control systems assist in this endeavor by either improving various performance characteristics or through relieving the pilot of excessive control forces. In this blog, we will discuss the most common primary and secondary flight control systems that pilots regularly rely on, allowing you to have a better understanding of how flights are carried out.
In general, primary flight control systems are specifically designed to manipulate airflow and pressure distribution across and around airfoil surfaces, allowing lift and drag to be adjusted for the means of controlling the aircraft across its three axes of rotation. There are three primary flight control surfaces that are found on aircraft, those of which are ailerons, the elevator, and rudder.
Aviation ailerons are important surfaces that allow a pilot to manage roll about the longitudinal axis, and they are attached on wings near the outboard trailing edge. When a pair of ailerons are activated, the surfaces on each wing will adjust in opposite directions to allow for the aircraft to enter a roll as desired. Ailerons are managed by pilots within the cockpit through the use of a control wheel or stick, and controls attach to the adjustable surfaces through cables, pulleys, tubes, and/or bellcranks. As one aileron is deflected upward, it will decrease the camber of the wing it is situated on, resulting in lower lift generation. Meanwhile, the downward pivoting aileron will cause a rise in camber, leading to more lift. So, if the aileron on the right right deflects upward and the one on the left deflects downward, the increased lift on the left wing will cause the aircraft to roll toward the right.
The aircraft elevator is a surface situated on the tail-end of the aircraft, and it allows the pilot to manage pitch about the lateral axis of the aircraft. Elevators feature similar controls and mechanical linkages like ailerons do, and they are deflected up and down during flight. The upward deflection of the elevator decreases its camber, creating a downward aerodynamic force that causes the tail to lower while the nose pitches up. The opposite occurs when the elevator is deflected downward, and the stretch of all pitching moments are determined by the distance between the center of gravity and the horizontal tail surface.
The rudder is the final primary control surface, and it allows the pilot to manage the movement of the aircraft along its vertical axis to control yaw. Rudders come in the form of hinged surfaces like other controls, and the pilot will manage them with foot petals within the cockpit. Rudders will be featured on the vertical stabilizer, that of which is a fixed surface at the tail end of the aircraft.
As discussed before, primary flight controls are used to direct management of heading and attitude, while secondary flight controls assist performance characteristics or relieve the pilot of excessive control forces. Depending on the type of aircraft and its application, secondary flight control surfaces include spoilers, trim systems, trim tabs, balance tabs, servo tabs, antiservo tabs, ground adjustable tabs, adjustable stabilizers, and other various types. As each aircraft model will vary in its features, it can be beneficial to have an understanding of what controls are available on your particular aircraft or model of interest.
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