This section focuses on the flight control systems a pilot uses to control the forces of flight and the aircraft’s direction and attitude. It should be noted that flight control systems and characteristics can vary greatly depending on the type of aircraft flown. The most basic flight control system designs are mechanical and date back to early aircraft. They operate with a collection of mechanical parts, such as rods, cables, pulleys, and sometimes chains to transmit the forces of the flight deck controls to the control surfaces. Mechanical flight control systems are still used today in small general and sport category aircraft where the aerodynamic forces are not excessive. [Figure 1]

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Figure 1. Mechanical flight control system

As aviation matured and aircraft designers learned more about aerodynamics, the industry produced larger and faster aircraft. Therefore, the aerodynamic forces acting upon the control surfaces increased exponentially. To make the control force required by pilots manageable, aircraft engineers designed more complex systems. At first, hydromechanical designs, consisting of a mechanical circuit and a hydraulic circuit, were used to reduce the complexity, weight, and limitations of mechanical flight controls systems. [Figure 2]

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Figure 2. Hydromechanical flight control system

As aircraft became more sophisticated, the control surfaces were actuated by electric motors, digital computers, or fiber optic cables. Called “fly-by-wire,” this flight control system replaces the physical connection between pilot controls and the flight control surfaces with an electrical interface. In addition, in some large and fast aircraft, controls are boosted by hydraulically or electrically actuated systems. In both the fly-by-wire and boosted controls, the feel of the control reaction is fed back to the pilot by simulated means.

Current research at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Dryden Flight Research Center involves Intelligent Flight Control Systems (IFCS). The goal of this project is to develop an adaptive neural network-based flight control system. Applied directly to flight control system feedback errors, IFCS provides adjustments to improve aircraft performance in normal flight, as well as with system failures. With IFCS, a pilot is able to maintain control and safely land an aircraft that has suffered a failure to a control surface or damage to the airframe. It also improves mission capability, increases the reliability and safety of flight, and eases the pilot workload.

Today’s aircraft employ a variety of flight control systems. For example, some aircraft in the sport pilot category rely on weight-shift control to fly while balloons use a standard burn technique. Helicopters utilize a cyclic to tilt the rotor in the desired direction along with a collective to manipulate rotor pitch and anti-torque pedals to control yaw. [Figure 3]

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Figure 3. Helicopter flight control system

For additional information on flight control systems, refer to the appropriate handbook for information related to the flight control systems and characteristics of specific types of aircraft.