The controls may look familiar … but don’t plan to
sing along with the radio in your airplane
The three axes of flight
By the staff at MySkyForce
Don’t let the control in the cockpit that looks like a steering wheel mislead you. Flying a plane is nothing like driving your car. That yoke that looks like a steering wheel won’t turn the plane’s wheels even when they are touching the ground. And no matter how much you tune that radio you see, you can’t bring in Miranda Lambert or Adam Levine.
Maneuvering a plane in the air requires that pilots use lift forces to control and guide the plane. By directing the movement of three external control surfaces on the plane, they can use lift to turn, climb, or descend. Of course, it’s all a little more complicated than that. So, before you take the controls you need to understand the motions a plane is capable of making in the air. We describe the motion of the airplane in relation to three axes and each axis has a control surface to direct the movement.
Think in terms of three axes
All airplanes have three axes. Visualize three imaginary lines drawn through the airplane. (Nose to tail, top to bottom, and side to side) The plane rotates around these three lines, which intersect at the airplane’s center of gravity.
We describe the motion of the airplane in relation to these three axes, and the movement around each axis is determined by a control surface on the plane which the pilot controls. Since early aviators had little to reference, they turned to the movement of ships on the seas to name the motions of the airplane. The results were the nautical terms roll, pitch and yaw. Let’s look at each axis and the movement of the airplane associated with it.
The Longitudinal Axis
The longitudinal axis is the imaginary line that enters the airplane’s nose, passes through the center of gravity, and exits out the tail. The plane rolls around the longitudinal axis. The pilot controls the movement with the ailerons.
The Lateral Axis
The lateral axis is the imaginary line that enters through the side of the plane, passes through the center of gravity and exits out the opposite side. The airplane pitches around the lateral axis, and the pilot controls the pitching movement with the elevator.
The third imaginary line is the vertical axis. This line enters the top of the airplane, passes through the center of gravity, and exits out the bottom of the plane. (I bet by now you have guessed that the center of gravity is going to play a major role in learning to fly.) The airplane yaws around the vertical axis. The pilot controls the yawing motion with the rudder.
The Pilot Controls the Action
As you have seen, the pilot uses a yoke or stick and floor mounted pedals to control the movements of the external control surfaces. The ailerons and elevator are the two control surfaces connected to the yoke or stick, and the pedals control the deflections of the rudder. Why do I keep saying yoke or stick? The airplane you fly will have one or the other. The yoke looks a bit like a steering wheel, and the stick is nothing more than a straight rod. Both function in nearly identical manners.
You are probably wondering how you can fly from one point to the next when your controls are just causing a lot of rolling and rotating in the sky. But those are just the basic movements available to pilots. As the thrust of the engine drives the plane through the air, the coordinated use of these controls will cause planes to climb, descend and turn. Stay with us. We’ll tell you how to do it.
We Should Get Together Again
We are going to be telling you how to use these controls to actually fly the plane. If you are preparing to become a pilot, or studying for your FAA written test, or just knocking the rust off your unused private pilot certificate; sign up now for our free weekly blog, so you won’t miss a thing.
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