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Stability of an Airplane - Level 3

An airplane in flight is constantly subjected to forces that

disturb it from its normal horizontal flight path. Rising columns of hot air, down drafts gusty winds, etc., make the air bumpy and the airplane is thrown off its course. Its nose or tail drops or one wing dips. How the airplane reacts to such a disturbance from its flight attitude depends on its stability characteristics.

Stability is the tendency of an airplane in flight to remain in straight, level, upright flight and to return to this attitude, if displaced, without corrective action by the pilot.

Static stability is the initial tendency of an airplane, when disturbed, to return to the original position.

Dynamic stability is the overall tendency of an airplane to return to its original position, following a series of damped out oscillations.

Stability may be (a) positive, meaning the airplane will develop forces or moments which tend to restore it to its original position; (b) neutral, meaning the restoring forces are absent and the airplane will neither return from its disturbed position, nor move further away; (c) negative, meaning it will develop forces or moments which tend to move it further away. Negative stability is, in other words, the condition of instability.

A stable airplane is one that will fly "hands off" and is pleasant and easy to handle. An exceedingly stable airplane, on the other hand, may lack maneuverability.

An airplane which, following a disturbance, oscillates with increasing up and down movements until it eventually stalls or enters a dangerous dive would be said to be unstable, or to have negative dynamic stability.

An airplane that has positive dynamic stability does not automatically have positive static stability. The designers may have elected to build in, for example, negative static stability and positive dynamic stability in order to achieve their objective in maneuverability. In other words, negative and positive dynamic and static stability may be incorporated in any combination in any particular design of airplane.

An airplane may be inherently stable, that is, stable due to features incorporated in the design, but may become unstable due to changes in the position of the center of gravity (caused by consumption of fuel, improper disposition of the disposable load, etc.).

Stability may be (a) longitudinal, (b) lateral, or (c) directional, depending on whether the disturbance has affected the airframe in the (a) pitching, (b) rolling, or (c) yawing plane.


Longitudinal stability is pitch stability, or stability around the lateral axis of the airplane.

To obtain longitudinal stability, airplanes are designed to be nose heavy when correctly loaded. The center of gravity is ahead of the center of pressure. This design feature is incorporated so that, in the event of engine failure, the airplane will assume a normal glide. It is because of this nose heavy characteristic that the airplane requires a tailplane. Its function is to resist this diving tendency. The tailplane is set at an angle of incidence that produces a negative lift and thereby, in effect, holds the tail down. In level, trimmed flight, the nose heavy tendency and the negative lift of the tailplane exactly balance each other.

Two principal factors influence longitudinal stability: (1) size and position of the horizontal stabilizer, and (2) position of the center of gravity.

The Horizontal Stabilizer

The tail plane, or stabilizer, is placed on the tail end of a lever arm (the fuselage) to provide longitudinal stability. It may be quite small. However, being situated at the end of the lever arm, it has great leverage. When the angle of attack on the wings is increased by a disturbance, the center of pressure moves forward, tending to turn the nose of the airplane up and the tail down. The tailplane, moving down, meets the air at a greater angle of attack, obtains more lift and tends to restore the balance.

On most airplanes, the stabilizer appears to be set at an angle of incidence that would produce an upward lift. It must, however, be remembered that the tailplane is in a position to be in the downwash from the wings. The air that strikes the stabilizer has already passed over the wings and been deflected slightly downward. The angle of the downwash is about half the angle of attack of the main airfoils. The proper angle of incidence of the stabilizer therefore is very important in order for it to be effective in its function.

Center of Gravity

The center of gravity is very important in achieving longitudinal stability. If the airplane is loaded with the center of gravity too far aft, the airplane may assume a nose up rather than a nose down attitude. The inherent stability will be lacking and, even though down elevator may correct the situation, control of the airplane in the longitudinal plane will be difficult and perhaps, in extreme cases, impossible.


Lateral stability is stability around the longitudinal axis, or roll stability.

Lateral stability is achieved through (1) dihedral, (2) sweepback, (3) keel effect, and (4) proper distribution of weight.


The dihedral angle is the angle that each wing makes with the horizontal. The purpose of dihedral is to improve lateral stability. If a disturbance causes one wing to drop, the unbalanced force produces a sideslip in the direction of the downgoing wing. This will, in effect, cause a flow of air in the opposite direction to the slip. This flow of air will strike the lower wing at a greater angle of attack than it strikes the upper wing. The lower wing will thus receive more lift and the airplane will roll back into its proper position.

Since dihedral inclines the wing to the horizontal, so too will the lift reaction of the wing be inclined from the vertical. Hence an excessive amount of dihedral will, in effect, reduce the lift force opposing weight.

Some modern airplanes have a measure of negative dihedral or anhedral, on the wings and/or stabilizer. The incorporation of this feature provides some advantages in overall design in certain type of airplanes. However, it does have an effect, probably adverse, on lateral stability.

Keel Effect

Dihedral is more usually a feature on low wing airplanes although some dihedral may be incorporated in high wing airplanes as well.

Most high wing airplanes are laterally stable simply because the wings are attached in a high position on the fuselage and because the weight is therefore low. When the airplane is disturbed and one wing dips, the weight acts as a pendulum returning the airplane to its original attitude.


A sweptback wing is one in which the leading edge slopes backward. When a disturbance causes an airplane with sweepback to slip or drop a wing, the low wing presents its leading edge at an angle that is perpendicular to the relative airflow. As a result, the low wing acquires more lift, rises and the airplane is restored to its original flight attitude.

Sweepback also contributes to directional stability. When turbulence or rudder application causes the airplane to yaw to one side, the right wing presents a longer leading edge perpendicular to the relative airflow. The airspeed of the right wing increases and it acquires more drag than the left wing. The additional drag on the right wing pulls it back, yawing the airplane back to its original path.


Directional stability is stability around the vertical or normal axis.

The most important feature that affects directional stability is the vertical tail surface, that is, the fin and rudder. Keel effect and sweepback also contribute to directional stability to some degree.

The Fin

An airplane has the tendency always to fly head-on into the relative airflow. This tendency which might be described as weather vaning is directly attributable to the vertical tail fin and to some extent also the vertical side areas of the fuselage. If the airplane yaws away from its course, the airflow strikes the vertical tail surface from the side and forces it back to its original line of flight. In order for the tail surfaces to function properly in this weather vaning capacity, the side area of the airplane aft of the center of gravity must be greater than the side area of the airplane forward of the C.G. If it were otherwise, the airplane would tend to rotate about its vertical axis.


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Updated: March 12, 2004