Ailerons are one of three primary flight control surfaces, allowing pilots to manage the lateral balance of aircraft. They are typically found on the trailing edge of each wing and work by generating more lift on one wing while reducing lift on the other. The pilot maneuvers the ailerons by turning the control wheel to the left or right.
Each of the controls changes the direction of the aircraft, moving the aircraft around one of the three axes of flight. The ailerons are tasked with controlling the roll of the aircraft around its longitudinal axis. The elevator controls are responsible for controlling the aircraft’s pitch around the lateral axis, enabling the nose to move up and down. Lastly, the rudder controls the aircraft’s yaw around the vertical axis, allowing the nose to move left and right.
To understand how ailerons work, you must first have a general understanding of how a wing makes lift. The wings of an aircraft have an airfoil shape, which helps direct air moving above the wing to move faster than the air below it. The air that is moving faster exerts less pressure. The higher pressure below the wing attempts to fill in the lower pressure, and due to the wing position, it lifts the aircraft up.
If a pilot wishes to generate more lift, they can employ two different methods. They can either fly faster, increasing the difference between the high and low pressure to produce more lift, or increase the angle of attack. The latter is the angle between the chord line of a wing and the relative wind. When the angle of attack is increased, the wing produces more lift.
The chord line is defined as an imaginary line that can be drawn from the leading edge to the trailing edge of the airfoil. Ailerons work by moving the chord line. As the ailerons move down, the chord line changes. As a result, the angle of attack is increased at the location of that particular aileron, generating more lift than the rest. Positioned on the outer wingtips, an aileron’s ability to produce an extra amount of lift allows the aircraft to twist away from the dropped aileron.
On the other side of the aircraft, the opposite aileron moves in an upwards direction. This movement reduces the angle of attack on that particular wing, resulting in less lift than the other wing. That particular wingtip will drop. This motion, in combination with the movement of the other aileron, will cause the aircraft to roll rapidly one way or another.
It is important to note that there is a fundamental problem with the way that ailerons work. When the angle of attack is increased to generate more lift, more drag is inevitably produced as well. This type of drag is called induced drag. With ailerons, only the wingtip goes up when the angle of attack is increased, resulting in the nose turning away from the turn. This motion is called adverse yaw and is the primary reason aircraft require rudder controls.
Before concluding this blog, we must cover the difference between ailerons and flaps, two elements that are often conflated. While both are located on the wings’ trailing edges, they work very differently. Flaps also change the chord line to increase the angle of attack. They extend equally on each side of the aircraft, allowing lift to be uniformly increased along the wingspan. Additionally, flaps are utilized to help pilots fly more slowly and enable them to make steep approaches without building up excessive airspeed.
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