How Airplanes Turn While Taxiing

Posted on October 26, 2020 John Symond

Either prior to takeoff or following landing, taxiing is part of every flight. Whether a small private plane or a Boeing 787, all aircraft must be able to turn while on the ground. There are three main controls that help an aircraft turn: the brakes, rudder, and the tiller. In smaller aircraft, control surfaces are linked to the cockpit controls through a mechanical linkage. So, when the pilot pushes the right rudder pedal, the cables move such that the rudder deflects to the right. In large aircraft, this process is usually carried out by a computer. To help swing the nose in the correct direction, brakes are applied in the direction of the turn.

When taxiing, speed plays a critical role in which flight controls are used to turn on the ground. On a long and straight taxiway, the pilot can typically make small adjustments solely by using the rudder without the help of the brakes. Withholding from using the brakes not only extends their service life, but is a better piloting technique too. Despite this, when making significant movements, it is important to use sufficient braking pressure so the aircraft can pivot effectively.

Ailerons do very little to help accomplish the turn, although they can help with wind correction while on the ground. Depending on the direction the wind is coming from, ailerons can be deployed to help the aircraft maintain centerline. The brakes and rudder, on the other hand, are essential for turning. These systems are controlled by pedals at the pilots feet - the bottom portion of the pedal controls the rudder and the top controls the brakes. To reach both of these controls during taxiing, the pilot must lift their feet completely onto the pedal system.

As important as knowing how to turn is, it’s only one part of taxiing. The other part is knowing where to turn. Pilots follow directions known as taxiway centerlines to guide them along the airport surface. These lines are bright yellow and found on all taxiways, regardless of length. The pilot’s role when turning is to ensure that the nose of the wheel of the aircraft stays on top of the centerline. The rudder, brakes, and tiller all help make this possible. Tillers are usually found on large transport category aircraft, where they help the nose wheel point in the correct direction. The average tiller allows for 60-70 degrees of movement. Tillers are especially useful in aircraft with large wingspans when rudders and brakes may not be enough.

While smaller aircraft use cables to link control surfaces, larger aircraft use fly-by-wire technology. Fly-by-wire technology works thusly: a pilot makes a control input on the flight deck, a computer processes that input, and outputs that command for all flight surfaces. It is a relatively simple phenomenon that not only helps aircraft turn on the ground, but in the air as well. As aircraft reach higher airspeeds, the deflection of the controls decreases to maintain proper stability. The amount of control deflection needed is monitored and adjusted by multiple computers on the aircraft. If the main fly-by-wire system fails, a backup is called into action.

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