Aircraft flight control systems consist of primary and secondary systems. The ailerons, elevator (or stabilator), and rudder constitute the primary control system and are required to control an aircraft safely during flight. Wing flaps, leading edge devices, spoilers, and trim systems constitute the secondary control system and improve the performance characteristics of the airplane or relieve the pilot of excessive control forces.

Primary Flight Controls

Aircraft control systems are carefully designed to provide adequate responsiveness to control inputs while allowing a natural feel. At low airspeeds, the controls usually feel soft and sluggish, and the aircraft responds slowly to control applications. At higher airspeeds, the controls become increasingly firm and aircraft response is more rapid.
Movement of any of the three primary flight control surfaces (ailerons, elevator or stabilator, or rudder), changes the airflow and pressure distribution over and around the airfoil. These changes affect the lift and drag produced by the airfoil/ control surface combination, and allow a pilot to control the aircraft about its three axes of rotation.
Design features limit the amount of deflection of flight control surfaces. For example, control-stop mechanisms may be incorporated into the flight control linkages, or movement of the control column and/or rudder pedals may be limited. The purpose of these design limits is to prevent the pilot from inadvertently overcontrolling and overstressing the aircraft during normal maneuvers.
A properly designed aircraft is stable and easily controlled during normal maneuvering. Control surface inputs cause movement about the three axes of rotation. The types of stability an aircraft exhibits also relate to the three axes of rotation. [Figure 1]
Aircraft Flight Control Systems
Figure 1. Airplane controls, movement, axes of rotation, and type of stability


Ailerons control roll about the longitudinal axis. The ailerons are attached to the outboard trailing edge of each wing and move in the opposite direction from each other. Ailerons are connected by cables, bellcranks, pulleys, and/or push-pull tubes to a control wheel or control stick.
Moving the control wheel, or control stick, to the right causes the right aileron to deflect upward and the left aileron to deflect downward. The upward deflection of the right aileron decreases the camber resulting in decreased lift on the right wing. The corresponding downward deflection of the left aileron increases the camber resulting in increased lift on the left wing. Thus, the increased lift on the left wing and the decreased lift on the right wing causes the aircraft to roll to the right.

Adverse Yaw

Since the downward deflected aileron produces more lift as evidenced by the wing raising, it also produces more drag. This added drag causes the wing to slow down slightly. This results in the aircraft yawing toward the wing which had experienced an increase in lift (and drag). From the pilot’s perspective, the yaw is opposite the direction of the bank. The adverse yaw is a result of differential drag and the slight difference in the velocity of the left and right wings.[Figure 2]
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Figure 2. Adverse yaw is caused by higher drag on the outside wing that is producing more lift
Adverse yaw becomes more pronounced at low airspeeds. At these slower airspeeds, aerodynamic pressure on control surfaces are low, and larger control inputs are required to effectively maneuver the aircraft. As a result, the increase in aileron deflection causes an increase in adverse yaw. The yaw is especially evident in aircraft with long wing spans.
Application of the rudder is used to counteract adverse yaw. The amount of rudder control required is greatest at low airspeeds, high angles of attack, and with large aileron deflections. Like all control surfaces at lower airspeeds, the vertical stabilizer/rudder becomes less effective and magnifies the control problems associated with adverse yaw.
All turns are coordinated by use of ailerons, rudder, and elevator. Applying aileron pressure is necessary to place the aircraft in the desired angle of bank, while simultaneous application of rudder pressure is necessary to counteract the resultant adverse yaw. Additionally, because more lift is required during a turn than during straight-and-level flight, the angle of attack (AOA) must be increased by applying elevator back pressure. The steeper the turn, the more elevator back pressure that is needed.
As the desired angle of bank is established, aileron and rudder pressures should be relaxed. This stops the angle of bank from increasing, because the aileron and rudder control surfaces are in a neutral and streamlined position. Elevator back pressure should be held constant to maintain altitude. The roll-out from a turn is similar to the roll-in, except the flight controls are applied in the opposite direction. The aileron and rudder are applied in the direction of the roll-out or toward the high wing. As the angle of bank decreases, the elevator back pressure should be relaxed as necessary to maintain altitude.
In an attempt to reduce the effects of adverse yaw, manufacturers have engineered four systems: differential ailerons, frise-type ailerons, coupled ailerons and rudder, and flaperons.

Differential Ailerons

With differential ailerons, one aileron is raised a greater distance than the other aileron and is lowered for a given movement of the control wheel or control stick. This produces an increase in drag on the descending wing. The greater drag results from deflecting the up aileron on the descending wing to a greater angle than the down aileron on the rising wing. While adverse yaw is reduced, it is not eliminated completely. [Figure 3]
Aircraft Flight Control Systems
Figure 3. Differential ailerons

Frise-Type Ailerons

With a frise-type aileron, when pressure is applied to the control wheel, or control stick, the aileron that is being raised pivots on an offset hinge. This projects the leading edge of the aileron into the airflow and creates drag. It helps equalize the drag created by the lowered aileron on the opposite wing and reduces adverse yaw. [Figure 4]
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Figure 4. Frise-type ailerons
The frise-type aileron also forms a slot so air flows smoothly over the lowered aileron, making it more effective at high angles of attack. Frise-type ailerons may also be designed to function differentially. Like the differential aileron, the frise-type aileron does not eliminate adverse yaw entirely. Coordinated rudder application is still needed when ailerons are applied.

Coupled Ailerons and Rudder

Coupled ailerons and rudder are linked controls. This is accomplished with rudder-aileron interconnect springs, which help correct for aileron drag by automatically deflecting the rudder at the same time the ailerons are deflected. For example, when the control wheel, or control stick, is moved to produce a left roll, the interconnect cable and spring pulls forward on the left rudder pedal just enough to prevent the nose of the aircraft from yawing to the right. The force applied to the rudder by the springs can be overridden if it becomes necessary to slip the aircraft. [Figure 5]
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Figure 5. Coupled ailerons and rudder


Flaperons combine both aspects of flaps and ailerons. In addition to controlling the bank angle of an aircraft like conventional ailerons, flaperons can be lowered together to function much the same as a dedicated set of flaps. The pilot retains separate controls for ailerons and flaps. A mixer is used to combine the separate pilot inputs into this single set of control surfaces called flaperons. Many designs that incorporate flaperons mount the control surfaces away from the wing to provide undisturbed airflow at high angles of attack and/or low airspeeds. [Figure 6]
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Figure 6. Flaperons on a Skystar Kitfox MK 7


The elevator controls pitch about the lateral axis. Like the ailerons on small aircraft, the elevator is connected to the control column in the flight deck by a series of mechanical linkages. Aft movement of the control column deflects the trailing edge of the elevator surface up. This is usually referred to as the up-elevator position. [Figure 7]
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Figure 7. The elevator is the primary control for changing the pitch attitude of an aircraft
The up-elevator position decreases the camber of the elevator and creates a downward aerodynamic force, which is greater than the normal tail-down force that exists in straight-andlevel flight. The overall effect causes the tail of the aircraft to move down and the nose to pitch up. The pitching moment occurs about the center of gravity (CG). The strength of the pitching moment is determined by the distance between the CG and the horizontal tail surface, as well as by the aerodynamic effectiveness of the horizontal tail surface. Moving the control column forward has the opposite effect. In this case, elevator camber increases, creating more lift (less tail-down force) on the horizontal stabilizer/elevator. This moves the tail upward and pitches the nose down. Again, the pitching moment occurs about the CG.
As mentioned earlier, stability, power, thrustline, and the position of the horizontal tail surfaces on the empennage are factors in elevator effectiveness controlling pitch. For example, the horizontal tail surfaces may be attached near the lower part of the vertical stabilizer, at the midpoint, or at the high point, as in the T-tail design.


In a T-tail configuration, the elevator is above most of the effects of downwash from the propeller, as well as airflow around the fuselage and/or wings during normal flight conditions. Operation of the elevators in this undisturbed air allows control movements that are consistent throughout most flight regimes. T-tail designs have become popular on many light and large aircraft, especially those with aft fuselage-mounted engines because the T-tail configuration removes the tail from the exhaust blast of the engines. Seaplanes and amphibians often have T-tails in order to keep the horizontal surfaces as far from the water as possible. An additional benefit is reduced noise and vibration inside the aircraft.
In comparison with conventional-tail aircraft, the elevator on a T-tail aircraft must be moved a greater distance to raise the nose a given amount when traveling at slow speeds. This is because the conventional-tail aircraft has the downwash from the propeller pushing down on the tail to assist in raising the nose.
Aircraft controls are rigged so that an increase in control force is required to increase control travel. The forces required to raise the nose of a T-tail aircraft are greater than the forces required to raise the nose of a conventional-tail aircraft. Longitudinal stability of a trimmed aircraft is the same for both types of configuration, but the pilot must be aware that the required control forces are greater at slow speeds during takeoffs, landings, or stalls than for similar size aircraft equipped with conventional tails.
T-tail aircraft also require additional design considerations to counter the problem of flutter. Since the weight of the horizontal surfaces is at the top of the vertical stabilizer, the moment arm created causes high loads on the vertical stabilizer that can result in flutter. Engineers must compensate for this by increasing the design stiffness of the vertical stabilizer, usually resulting in a weight penalty over conventional tail designs.
When flying at a very high AOA with a low airspeed and an aft CG, the T-tail aircraft may be more susceptible to a deep stall. In this condition, the wake of the wing impinges on the tail surface and renders it almost ineffective. The wing, if fully stalled, allows its airflow to separate right after the leading edge. The wide wake of decelerated, turbulent air blankets the horizontal tail and hence its effectiveness diminished significantly. In these circumstances, elevator or stabilator control is reduced (or perhaps eliminated) making it difficult to recover from the stall. It should be noted that an aft CG is often a contributing factor in these incidents, since similar recovery problems are also found with conventional tail aircraft with an aft CG. [Figure 8] Deep stalls can occur on any aircraft but are more likely to occur on aircraft with “T” tails as a high AOA may be more likely to place the wings separated airflow into the path of the horizontal surface of the tail. Additionally, the distance between the wings and the tail, the position of the engines (such as being mounted on the tail) may increase the susceptibility of deep stall events. Therefore a deep stall may be more prevalent on transport versus general aviation aircraft.
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Figure 8. Aircraft with a T-tail design at a high AOA and an aft CG
Since flight at a high AOA with a low airspeed and an aft CG position can be dangerous, many aircraft have systems to compensate for this situation. The systems range from control stops to elevator down springs. On transport category jets, stick pushers are commonly used. An elevator down spring assists in lowering the nose of the aircraft to prevent a stall caused by the aft CG position. The stall occurs because the properly trimmed airplane is flying with the elevator in a trailing edge down position, forcing the tail up and the nose down. In this unstable condition, if the aircraft encounters turbulence and slows down further, the trim tab no longer positions the elevator in the nose-down position. The elevator then streamlines, and the nose of the aircraft pitches upward, possibly resulting in a stall.
The elevator down spring produces a mechanical load on the elevator, causing it to move toward the nose-down position if not otherwise balanced. The elevator trim tab balances the elevator down spring to position the elevator in a trimmed position. When the trim tab becomes ineffective, the down spring drives the elevator to a nose-down position. The nose of the aircraft lowers, speed builds up, and a stall is prevented. [Figure 9]
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Figure 9. When the aerodynamic efficiency of the horizontal tail surface is inadequate due to an aft CG condition, an elevator down spring may be used to supply a mechanical load to lower the nose
The elevator must also have sufficient authority to hold the nose of the aircraft up during the roundout for a landing. In this case, a forward CG may cause a problem. During the landing flare, power is usually reduced, which decreases the airflow over the empennage. This, coupled with the reduced landing speed, makes the elevator less effective.
As this discussion demonstrates, pilots must understand and follow proper loading procedures, particularly with regard to the CG position. More information on aircraft loading, as well as weight and balance, is included in Weight and Balance.


As mentioned in Aircraft Structure, Major Components, a stabilator is essentially a one-piece horizontal stabilizer that pivots from a central hinge point. When the control column is pulled back, it raises the stabilator’s trailing edge, pulling the nose of the aircraft. Pushing the control column forward lowers the trailing edge of the stabilator and pitches the nose of the aircraft down.
Because stabilators pivot around a central hinge point, they are extremely sensitive to control inputs and aerodynamic loads. Antiservo tabs are incorporated on the trailing edge to decrease sensitivity. They deflect in the same direction as the stabilator. This results in an increase in the force required to move the stabilator, thus making it less prone to pilot-induced overcontrolling. In addition, a balance weight is usually incorporated in front of the main spar. The balance weight may project into the empennage or may be incorporated on the forward portion of the stabilator tips. [Figure 10]
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Figure 10. The stabilator is a one-piece horizontal tail surface that pivots up and down about a central hinge point


The canard design utilizes the concept of two lifting surfaces. The canard functions as a horizontal stabilizer located in front of the main wings. In effect, the canard is an airfoil similar to the horizontal surface on a conventional aft-tail design. The difference is that the canard actually creates lift and holds the nose up, as opposed to the aft-tail design which exerts downward force on the tail to prevent the nose from rotating downward. [Figure 11]
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Figure 11. The Piaggio P180 includes a variable-sweep canard design that provides longitudinal stability about the lateral axis
The canard design dates back to the pioneer days of aviation. Most notably, it was used on the Wright Flyer. Recently, the canard configuration has regained popularity and is appearing on newer aircraft. Canard designs include two types–one with a horizontal surface of about the same size as a normal aft-tail design, and the other with a surface of the same approximate size and airfoil of the aft-mounted wing known as a tandem wing configuration. Theoretically, the canard is considered more efficient because using the horizontal surface to help lift the weight of the aircraft should result in less drag for a given amount of lift.


The rudder controls movement of the aircraft about its vertical axis. This motion is called yaw. Like the other primary control surfaces, the rudder is a movable surface hinged to a fixed surface in this case, to the vertical stabilizer or fin. The rudder is controlled by the left and right rudder pedals.
When the rudder is deflected into the airflow, a horizontal force is exerted in the opposite direction. [Figure 12] By pushing the left pedal, the rudder moves left. This alters the airflow around the vertical stabilizer/rudder and creates a sideward lift that moves the tail to the right and yaws the nose of the airplane to the left. Rudder effectiveness increases with speed; therefore, large deflections at low speeds and small deflections at high speeds may be required to provide the desired reaction. In propeller-driven aircraft, any slipstream flowing over the rudder increases its effectiveness.
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Figure 12. The effect of left rudder pressure


The V-tail design utilizes two slanted tail surfaces to perform the same functions as the surfaces of a conventional elevator and rudder configuration. The fixed surfaces act as both horizontal and vertical stabilizers. [Figure 13]
V-tail design Aircraft
Figure 13. Beechcraft Bonanza V35
The movable surfaces, which are usually called ruddervators, are connected through a special linkage that allows the control wheel to move both surfaces simultaneously. On the other hand, displacement of the rudder pedals moves the surfaces differentially, thereby providing directional control.
When both rudder and elevator controls are moved by the pilot, a control mixing mechanism moves each surface the appropriate amount. The control system for the V-tail is more complex than the control system for a conventional tail. In addition, the V-tail design is more susceptible to Dutch roll tendencies than a conventional tail, and total reduction in drag is minimal.

Secondary Flight Controls

Secondary flight control systems may consist of wing flaps, leading edge devices, spoilers, and trim systems.


Flaps are the most common high-lift devices used on aircraft. These surfaces, which are attached to the trailing edge of the wing, increase both lift and induced drag for any given AOA. Flaps allow a compromise between high cruising speed and low landing speed because they may be extended when needed and retracted into the wing’s structure when not needed. There are four common types of flaps: plain, split, slotted, and Fowler flaps. [Figure 14]
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Figure 14. Five common types of flaps
The plain flap is the simplest of the four types. It increases the airfoil camber, resulting in a significant increase in the coefficient of lift (CL) at a given AOA. At the same time, it greatly increases drag and moves the center of pressure (CP) aft on the airfoil, resulting in a nose-down pitching moment.
The split flap is deflected from the lower surface of the airfoil and produces a slightly greater increase in lift than the plain flap. More drag is created because of the turbulent air pattern produced behind the airfoil. When fully extended, both plain and split flaps produce high drag with little additional lift.
The most popular flap on aircraft today is the slotted flap. Variations of this design are used for small aircraft, as well as for large ones. Slotted flaps increase the lift coefficient significantly more than plain or split flaps. On small aircraft, the hinge is located below the lower surface of the flap, and when the flap is lowered, a duct forms between the flap well in the wing and the leading edge of the flap. When the slotted flap is lowered, high energy air from the lower surface is ducted to the flap’s upper surface. The high energy air from the slot accelerates the upper surface boundary layer and delays airflow separation, providing a higher CL. Thus, the slotted flap produces much greater increases in maximum coefficient of lift (CL-MAX) than the plain or split flap. While there are many types of slotted flaps, large aircraft often have double- and even triple-slotted flaps. These allow the maximum increase in drag without the airflow over the flaps separating and destroying the lift they produce.
Fowler flaps are a type of slotted flap. This flap design not only changes the camber of the wing, it also increases the wing area. Instead of rotating down on a hinge, it slides backwards on tracks. In the first portion of its extension, it increases the drag very little, but increases the lift a great deal as it increases both the area and camber. Pilots should be aware that flap extension may cause a nose-up or down pitching moment, depending on the type of aircraft, which the pilot will need to compensate for, usually with a trim adjustment. As the extension continues, the flap deflects downward. During the last portion of its travel, the flap increases the drag with little additional increase in lift.

Leading Edge Devices

High-lift devices also can be applied to the leading edge of the airfoil. The most common types are fixed slots, movable slats, leading edge flaps, and cuffs. [Figure 15]
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Figure 15. Leading edge high lift devices
Fixed slots direct airflow to the upper wing surface and delay airflow separation at higher angles of attack. The slot does not increase the wing camber, but allows a higher maximum CL because the stall is delayed until the wing reaches a greater AOA.
Movable slats consist of leading edge segments that move on tracks. At low angles of attack, each slat is held flush against the wing’s leading edge by the high pressure that forms at the wing’s leading edge. As the AOA increases, the high-pressure area moves aft below the lower surface of the wing, allowing the slats to move forward. Some slats, however, are pilot operated and can be deployed at any AOA. Opening a slat allows the air below the wing to flow over the wing’s upper surface, delaying airflow separation.
Leading edge flaps, like trailing edge flaps, are used to increase both CL-MAX and the camber of the wings. This type of leading edge device is frequently used in conjunction with trailing edge flaps and can reduce the nose-down pitching movement produced by the latter. As is true with trailing edge flaps, a small increment of leading edge flaps increases lift to a much greater extent than drag. As flaps are extended, drag increases at a greater rate than lift.
Leading edge cuffs, like leading edge flaps and trailing edge flaps are used to increase both CL-MAX and the camber of the wings. Unlike leading edge flaps and trailing edge flaps, leading edge cuffs are fixed aerodynamic devices. In most cases, leading edge cuffs extend the leading edge down and forward. This causes the airflow to attach better to the upper surface of the wing at higher angles of attack, thus lowering an aircraft’s stall speed. The fixed nature of leading edge cuffs extracts a penalty in maximum cruise airspeed, but recent advances in design and technology have reduced this penalty.


Found on some fixed-wing aircraft, high drag devices called spoilers are deployed from the wings to spoil the smooth airflow, reducing lift and increasing drag. On gliders, spoilers are most often used to control rate of descent for accurate landings. On other aircraft, spoilers are often used for roll control, an advantage of which is the elimination of adverse yaw. To turn right, for example, the spoiler on the right wing is raised, destroying some of the lift and creating more drag on the right. The right wing drops, and the aircraft banks and yaws to the right. Deploying spoilers on both wings at the same time allows the aircraft to descend without gaining speed. Spoilers are also deployed to help reduce ground roll after landing. By destroying lift, they transfer weight to the wheels, improving braking effectiveness. [Figure 16]
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Figure 16. Spoilers reduce lift and increase drag during descent and landing

Trim Systems

Although an aircraft can be operated throughout a wide range of attitudes, airspeeds, and power settings, it can be designed to fly hands-off within only a very limited combination of these variables. Trim systems are used to relieve the pilot of the need to maintain constant pressure on the flight controls, and usually consist of flight deck controls and small hinged devices attached to the trailing edge of one or more of the primary flight control surfaces. Designed to help minimize a pilot’s workload, trim systems aerodynamically assist movement and position of the flight control surface to which they are attached. Common types of trim systems include trim tabs, balance tabs, antiservo tabs, ground adjustable tabs, and an adjustable stabilizer.

Trim Tabs

The most common installation on small aircraft is a single trim tab attached to the trailing edge of the elevator. Most trim tabs are manually operated by a small, vertically mounted control wheel. However, a trim crank may be found in some aircraft. The flight deck control includes a trim tab position indicator. Placing the trim control in the full nose-down position moves the trim tab to its full up position. With the trim tab up and into the airstream, the airflow over the horizontal tail surface tends to force the trailing edge of the elevator down. This causes the tail of the aircraft to move up and the nose to move down. [Figure 17]
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Figure 17. The movement of the elevator is opposite to the direction of movement of the elevator trim tab
If the trim tab is set to the full nose-up position, the tab moves to its full down position. In this case, the air flowing under the horizontal tail surface hits the tab and forces the trailing edge of the elevator up, reducing the elevator’s AOA. This causes the tail of the aircraft to move down and the nose to move up.
In spite of the opposing directional movement of the trim tab and the elevator, control of trim is natural to a pilot. If the pilot needs to exert constant back pressure on a control column, the need for nose-up trim is indicated. The normal trim procedure is to continue trimming until the aircraft is balanced and the nose-heavy condition is no longer apparent. Pilots normally establish the desired power, pitch attitude, and configuration first, and then trim the aircraft to relieve control pressures that may exist for that flight condition. As power, pitch attitude, or configuration changes, retrimming is necessary to relieve the control pressures for the new flight condition.

Balance Tabs

The control forces may be excessively high in some aircraft, and, in order to decrease them, the manufacturer may use balance tabs. They look like trim tabs and are hinged in approximately the same places as trim tabs. The essential difference between the two is that the balancing tab is coupled to the control surface rod so that when the primary control surface is moved in any direction, the tab automatically moves in the opposite direction. The airflow striking the tab counterbalances some of the air pressure against the primary control surface and enables the pilot to move the control more easily and hold the control surface in position.
If the linkage between the balance tab and the fixed surface is adjustable from the flight deck, the tab acts as a combination trim and balance tab that can be adjusted to a desired deflection.

Servo Tabs

Servo tabs are very similar in operation and appearance to the trim tabs previously discussed. A servo tab is a small portion of a flight control surface that deploys in such a way that it helps to move the entire flight control surface in the direction that the pilot wishes it to go. A servo tab is a dynamic device that deploys to decrease the pilots work load and de-stabilize the aircraft. Servo tabs are sometimes referred to as flight tabs and are used primarily on large aircraft. They aid the pilot in moving the control surface and in holding it in the desired position. Only the servo tab moves in response to movement of the pilot’s flight control, and the force of the airflow on the servo tab then moves the primary control surface.

Antiservo Tabs

Antiservo tabs work in the same manner as balance tabs except, instead of moving in the opposite direction, they move in the same direction as the trailing edge of the stabilator. In addition to decreasing the sensitivity of the stabilator, an antiservo tab also functions as a trim device to relieve control pressure and maintain the stabilator in the desired position. The fixed end of the linkage is on the opposite side of the surface from the horn on the tab; when the trailing edge of the stabilator moves up, the linkage forces the trailing edge of the tab up. When the stabilator moves down, the tab also moves down. Conversely, trim tabs on elevators move opposite of the control surface. [Figure 18]
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Figure 18. An antiservo tab attempts to streamline the control surface and is used to make the stabilator less sensitive by opposing the force exerted by the pilot

Ground Adjustable Tabs

Many small aircraft have a nonmovable metal trim tab on the rudder. This tab is bent in one direction or the other while on the ground to apply a trim force to the rudder. The correct displacement is determined by trial and error. Usually, small adjustments are necessary until the aircraft no longer skids left or right during normal cruising flight. [Figure 19]
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Figure 19. A ground adjustable tab is used on the rudder of many small airplanes to correct for a tendency to fly with the fuselage slightly misaligned with the relative wind

Adjustable Stabilizer

Rather than using a movable tab on the trailing edge of the elevator, some aircraft have an adjustable stabilizer. With this arrangement, linkages pivot the horizontal stabilizer about its rear spar. This is accomplished by the use of a jackscrew mounted on the leading edge of the stabilator. [Figure 20] On small aircraft, the jackscrew is cable operated with a trim wheel or crank. On larger aircraft, it is motor driven. The trimming effect and flight deck indications for an adjustable stabilizer are similar to those of a trim tab.
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Figure 20. Some aircraft, including most jet transports, use an adjustable stabilizer to provide the required pitch trim forces