Transition to Complex Airplanes - Introduction

A high-performance airplane is defined as an airplane with an engine capable of developing more than 200 horsepower. A complex airplane is an airplane that has a retractable landing gear, flaps, and a controllable pitch propeller. In lieu of a controllable pitch propeller, the aircraft could also have an engine control system consisting of a digital computer and associated accessories for controlling the engine and the propeller. A seaplane would still be considered complex if it meets the description above except for having floats instead of a retractable landing gear system.

Transition to a complex airplane, or a high-performance airplane, can be demanding for most pilots without previous experience. Increased performance and complexity both require additional planning, judgment, and piloting skills. Transition to these types of airplanes, therefore, should be accomplished in a systematic manner through a structured course of training administered by a qualified flight instructor.

Airplanes can be designed to fly through a wide range of airspeeds. High speed flight requires smaller wing areas and moderately cambered airfoils whereas low speed flight is obtained with airfoils with a greater camber and larger wing area. [Figure 1] Many compromises are often made by designers to provide for higher speed cruise flight and low speeds for landing. Flaps are a common design effort to increase an airfoil’s camber and the wing’s surface area for lower speed flight. [Figure 2]

Figure 1. Airfoil types

Figure 2. Coefficient of lift comparison for flap extended and retracted positions

Since an airfoil cannot have two different cambers at the same time, one of two things must be done. Either the airfoil can be a compromise, or a cruise airfoil can be combined with a device for increasing the camber of the airfoil for low-speed flight. Camber is the asymmetry between the top and the bottom surfaces of an airfoil. One method for varying an airfoil’s camber is the addition of trailing-edge flaps. Engineers call these devices a high-lift system.

Function of Flaps

Flaps work primarily by changing the camber of the airfoil which increases the wing’s lift coefficient and with some flap designs the surface area of the wing is also increased. Flap deflection does not increase the critical (stall) angle of attack (AOA) and, in some cases, flap deflection actually decreases the critical AOA. Deflection of a wing’s control surfaces, such as ailerons and flaps, alters both lift and drag. With aileron deflection, there is asymmetrical lift which imparts a rolling moment about the airplane’s longitudinal axis. Wing flaps acts symmetrically about the longitudinal axis producing no rolling moment; however, both lift and drag increase as well as a pitching moment about the lateral axis. Lift is a function of several variables including air density, velocity, surface area, and lift coefficient. Since flaps increase an airfoil’s lift coefficient, lift is increased. [Figure 3]

Figure 3. Lift equation

As flaps are deflected, the aircraft may pitch nose up, nose down or have minimal changes in pitch attitude. Pitching moment is caused by the rearward movement of the wing’s center of pressure; however, that pitching behavior depends on several variables including flap type, wing position, downwash behavior, and horizontal tail location.

Consequently, pitch behavior depends on the design features of the particular airplane.

Flap deflection of up to 15° primarily produces lift with minimal increases in drag. Deflection beyond 15° produces a large increase in drag. Drag from flap deflection is parasite drag and, as such, is proportional to the square of the speed. Also, deflection beyond 15° produces a significant nose-up pitching moment in most high-wing airplanes because the resulting downwash increases the airflow over the horizontal tail.

Flap Effectiveness

Flap effectiveness depends on a number of factors, but the most noticeable are size and type. For the purpose of this post, trailing edge flaps are classified as four basic types: plain (hinge), split, slotted, and Fowler. [Figure 4]

Figure 4. Four basic types of flaps

The plain or hinge flap is a hinged section of the wing. The structure and function are comparable to the other control surfaces—ailerons, rudder, and elevator. The split flap is more complex. It is the lower or underside portion of the wing; deflection of the flap leaves the upper trailing edge of the wing undisturbed. It is, however, more effective than the hinge flap because of greater lift and less pitching moment, but there is more drag. Split flaps are more useful for landing, but the partially deflected hinge flaps have the advantage in takeoff. The split flap has significant drag at small deflections, whereas the hinge flap does not because airflow remains “attached” to the flap.

The slotted flap has a gap between the wing and the leading edge of the flap. The slot allows high-pressure airflow on the wing undersurface to energize the lower pressure over the top, thereby delaying flow separation. The slotted flap has greater lift than the hinge flap but less than the split flap; but, because of a higher lift-drag ratio, it gives better takeoff and climb performance. Small deflections of the slotted flap give a higher drag than the hinge flap but less than the split. This allows the slotted flap to be used for takeoff.

The Fowler flap deflects down and aft to increase the wing area. This flap can be multi-slotted making it the most complex of the trailing-edge systems. This system does, however, give the maximum lift coefficient. Drag characteristics at small deflections are much like the slotted flap. Fowler flaps are most commonly used on larger airplanes because of their structural complexity and difficulty in sealing the slots.

Operational Procedures

It would be impossible to discuss all the many airplane design and flap combinations. This emphasizes the importance of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved Airplane Flight Manual and/or Pilot’s Operating Handbook (AFM/ POH) for a given airplane. While some AFM/POHs are specific as to operational use of flaps, others leave the use of flaps to pilot discretion. Hence, flap operation makes pilot judgment of critical importance. Since flap operation is used for landings and takeoffs, during which the airplane is in close proximity to the ground where the margin for error is small.

Since the recommendations given in the AFM/POH are based on the airplane and the flap design, the pilot must relate the manufacturer’s recommendation to aerodynamic effects of flaps. This requires basic background knowledge of flap aerodynamics and geometry. With this information, a decision as to the degree of flap deflection and time of deflection based on runway and approach conditions relative to the wind conditions can be made.

The time of flap extension and degree of deflection are related. Large flap deflections at one single point in the landing pattern produce large lift changes that require significant pitch and power changes in order to maintain airspeed and glide slope. Incremental deflection of flaps on downwind, base, and final approach allow smaller adjustment of pitch and power compared to extension of full flaps all at one time. This procedure facilitates a more stabilized approach.

While all landings should be accomplished at the slowest speed possible for a given situation, a soft or short-field landing requires minimal speed at touchdown while a short field obstacle approach requires minimum speed and a steep approach angle. Flap extension, particularly beyond 30°, results in significant levels of drag. As such, large angles of flap deployment require higher power settings than used with partial flaps. When steep approach angles and short fields combine with power to offset the drag produced by the flaps, the landing flare becomes critical. The drag produces a high sink rate that must be controlled with power, yet failure to reduce power at a rate so that the power is idle at touchdown allows the airplane to float down the runway. A reduction in power too early can result in a hard landing and damage or loss of control.

Crosswind component is another factor to be considered in the degree of flap extension. The deflected flap presents a surface area for the wind to act on. With flaps extended in a crosswind, the wing on the upwind side is more affected than the downwind wing. The effect is reduced to a slight extent in the crabbed approach since the airplane is more nearly aligned with the wind. When using a wing-low approach, the lowered wing partially blocks the upwind flap. The dihedral of the wing combined with the flap and wind make lateral control more difficult. Lateral control becomes more difficult as flap extension reaches maximum and the crosswind becomes perpendicular to the runway.

With flaps extended, the crosswind effects on the wing become more pronounced as the airplane comes closer to the ground. The wing, flap, and ground form a “container” that is filled with air by the crosswind. Since the flap is located behind the main landing gear when the wind strikes the deflected flap and fuselage side, the upwind wing tends to rise and the airplane tends to turn into the wind. Proper control position is essential for maintaining runway alignment. Depending on the amount of crosswind, it may be necessary to retract the flaps soon after touchdown in order to maintain control of the airplane.

The go-around is another factor to consider when making a decision about degree of flap deflection and about where in the landing pattern to extend flaps. Because of the nose down pitching moment produced with flap extension, trim is used to offset this pitching moment. Application of full power in the go-around increases the airflow over the wing. This produces additional lift causing significant changes in pitch. The pitch-up tendency does not diminish completely with flap retraction because of the trim setting. Expedient retraction of flaps is desirable to eliminate drag; however, the pilot must be prepared for rapid changes in pitch forces as the result of trim and the increase in airflow over the control surfaces. [Figure 5]

Figure 5. Flaps extended pitching moment

The degree of flap deflection combined with design configuration of the horizontal tail relative to the wing require carefully monitoring of pitch and airspeed, carefully control flap retraction to minimize altitude loss, and properly use the rudder for coordination. Considering these factors, it is good practice to extend the same degree of flap deflection at the same point in the landing pattern for each landing. This requires that a consistent traffic pattern be used. This allows for a preplanned go-around sequence based on the airplane’s position in the landing pattern.

There is no single formula to determine the degree of flap deflection to be used on landing because a landing involves variables that are dependent on each other. The AFM/POH for the particular airplane contains the manufacturer’s recommendations for some landing situations. On the other hand, AFM/POH information on flap usage for takeoff is more precise. The manufacturer’s requirements are based on the climb performance produced by a given flap design. Under no circumstances should a flap setting given in the AFM/POH be exceeded for takeoff.

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