Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Airplanes Work

Aerial Navigation: Stabilizers, Ailerons, Rudders and Elevators

This content is not compatible on this device.

The tail of the airplane has two types of small wings, called the horizontal and vertical stabilizers. A pilot uses these surfaces to control the direction of the plane. Both types of stabilizer are symmetrical airfoils, and both have large flaps to alter airflow.

On the horizontal tail wing, these flaps are called elevators as they enable the plane to go up and down through the air. The flaps change the horizontal stabilizer's angle of attack, and the resulting lift either raises the rear of the aircraft (pointing the nose down) or lowers it (pointing the nose skyward).

Meanwhile, the vertical tail wing features a flap known as a rudder. Just like its nautical counterpart on a boat, this key part enables the plane to turn left or right and works along the same principle.

Finally, we come to the ailerons, horizontal flaps located near the end of an airplane's wings. These flaps allow one wing to generate more lift than the other, resulting in a rolling motion that allows the plane to bank left or right. Ailerons usually work in opposition. As the right aileron deflects upward, the left deflects downward, and vice versa. Some larger aircraft, such as airliners, also achieve this maneuver via deployable plates called spoilers that raise up from the top center of the wing.

By manipulating these varied wing flaps, a pilot maneuvers the aircraft through the sky. They represent the basics behind everything from a new pilot's first flight to high-speed dogfights and supersonic, hemisphere-spanning jaunts.

More to Explore