When you hear the term ‘flight controls’ you may picture the interior of the cockpit and the myriad of buttons and switches the pilot and co-pilot have at their disposal. However, these are in fact the flight instruments. The flight controls are surfaces on the exterior of the aircraft controlled by the instruments. Flight controls are divided into two categories: primary and secondary. Primary flight controls are used to safely control the aircraft during flight and include the ailerons, elevators or stabilator, and rudder. Secondary flight controls consist of slats, flaps, spoilers, trim systems, and other high lift devices.
The three main flight controls, the rudder, elevator/stabilator, ailerons, operate by changing the airflow around them via their movement. These movements affect lift and drag produced by the airfoil/control surface tandem, and allow the pilot to control the aircraft on all three rotational axes. At low airspeeds, the controls may feel weak or sluggish, like the aircraft is struggling to change directions. However, at higher speeds the controls will become more sensitive and the aircraft will respond much more quickly. There are features included in the design of flight controls that serve to limit the amount of airflow deflection they create. These are called control-stop mechanisms and are in place to prevent the pilot from accidentally overcontrolling the aircraft during standard maneuvers.
The majority of flight control systems are mechanical tools that date back to the earliest aircraft types. Despite their simplicity, they are still in use today in most light and general aviation aircraft. More sophisticated aircraft, like military jets, have more complex flight controls. The aerodynamic forces at high speeds become too great for the pilot to overcome without assistance, so hydraulic systems are implemented to move the surfaces. Newer aircraft are also sometimes fitted with computers and fiber optic control systems to reduce weight and save fuel. These are called “Fly-by-Wire” flight controls.
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