What is a Flight Control System?

Mary McMahon

A flight control system is an interconnected network of controls which allows a pilot to fly an aircraft. There are a number of different styles of flight control system, ranging from the basic to the extremely complex, and refinements to these systems are constantly being designed to make aircraft safer and easier to fly. Much like the pedals and steering wheel in a car, flight control systems allow pilots to control the speed and direction of their aircraft, and a whole lot more, so that they can bring a plane safely from point A to point B.

The avionics on an F-16 Fighting Falcon prevent it from making turns that are so tight that the G-forces would kill the pilot.
The avionics on an F-16 Fighting Falcon prevent it from making turns that are so tight that the G-forces would kill the pilot.

The earliest flight control systems were purely mechanical. To do something like move the flaps on a plane, the pilot would pull a lever attached to a wire which would physically pull the flaps in the direction the pilot desired. Eventually, aircraft designers developed hydromechanical systems, which boosted the system with hydraulics to make it easier to operate. Hydromechanical systems also included innovations such as springs which provided feedback so that a pilot could not pull too hard or too suddenly and damage the plane.

NASA's diverse fleet of test aircraft was used to develop a number of fly-by-wire flight control systems.
NASA's diverse fleet of test aircraft was used to develop a number of fly-by-wire flight control systems.

Modern flight control systems utilize what is known as a fly-by-wire system. In these systems, the pilot uses electronic controls which communicate with the various components of the system. Both analog and digital fly-by-wire systems are available, with digital systems being more common in commercial aircraft. A digital flight control system provides computerized controls, along with input from a computer system which collects data about how the plane is performing.

Some systems are partially or fully automated, making decisions on the basis of the information they gather. Automation has a clear advantage, because it allows the controls of a plane to respond to emerging issues before the pilot even notices them. The Intelligent Flight Control System (ICFS), a system developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), is designed to compensate for damages to the aircraft with a number of failsafes and an intelligent neural network which learns as the plane is flown.

Learning how to operate a flight control system can take time, because there is a great deal of information to absorb. In addition to learning about the dynamics of flight, the pilot needs to become familiar with a huge array of controls which do everything from moving the landing gear on the aircraft to adjusting the flaps on the wings during takeoff and landing.

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Discussion Comments


It is interesting to read about all of the automatic flight controls, but I am on the completely opposite side of the table.

I build experimental light aircraft as a hobby, and we still do it the old fashioned way. Our flight controls are linked to steel cables, and the cables actually move the flight control surfaces and directly control the plane.

This is very effective and safe for a light, simple plane, you just have to check them often to make sure everything is tight and in good condition. Something breaking in the air could be very bad.


@MaPa - It's quite true that a computer can't think in the classic sense, but artificial intelligence is getting pretty amazing. Even though it can only pick from a present list of options, it can be a pretty huge list and it can go through the list almost instantly.

The Navy is studying a new UCAV (unmanned combat aerial vehicle) that can not only fly to the target on its own, it can independently choose targets based on preset characteristics, attack them, and then fly home. They don't let it do that yet, but it is perfectly capable of doing so.


@pennywell, I would think that under normal circumstances the automates system would probably be faster than a human reaction. No delay to process and faster to put the solution in place. The problem would be that it can only pick from a preset list of things to do. Sometimes you have to pick your way through a bad situation by using common sense, and a computer can't do that. At least not yet.


@nony - I don’t have a flight simulator, but I do have a Flight Control PC game.

It’s two–dimensional, not fancy at all, but it is an interesting puzzle game where you have to try to land planes using different flight patterns.

You have different types of aircraft just like with flight simulator, and you have a certain time within which you have to land the planes. The game is a lot of fun and was a bit hit as an app for cell phones not too long ago.


@nony - Yeah, I have a similar program on my computer.

One thing that I found which helps me is a flight control system joystick, which I bought and has replaced the keyboard and the mouse for moving the plane around.

I guarantee you that if you get one of these things (assuming you don’t have it already) it will improve your ability to land the plane.


I wish I could fly an aircraft. I have a few friends who know how to.

In the meantime, I’ve settled for the next best thing – a flight simulator. The flight simulator runs on my PC and sports a range of airplanes from simple gliders to commercial jets to military planes.

Each one of them has their own flight controls and sometimes it can be a bit disorienting making out all the knobs and dials and meters. But really the basic principles of flight are the same in either case.

So far I’ve successfully taken off and landed with the simplest planes but I always crash the commercial jetliners. Too bad the program doesn’t automatically land the planes for me.

It’s really a balancing act, learning everything that you have to do in just the precise way so that the plane lands (and on the runway).

It’s fun either way, and based on my performance, I probably won’t be flying a real airplane anytime soon.


@pennywell - You raise an interesting point. I'm sure that in an emergency, if an automated system kicked in it would be more effective than humans since it avoids factors like panic, stress, user error and so on. However, keep in mind that there are some situations that involve more creative solutions. Do you think that in those cases it would be more dangerous for a flight control computer to kick in and commence a default procedure?


It's great that some of the flight systems are automated, but would they be able to react fast enough to avoid emergency situations? Would they be better than human intervention?

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