The architecture that allows an airplane to fly is an incredible feat of engineering and involves thousands of individual components working together in unison. An easily overlooked but vital component on the wings of the aircraft is the flaps. This article will discuss what the flaps are and their function during the different phases of a flight.
What Are the Flaps?
Flaps are devices mounted on the trailing edge of most fixed-wing aircraft. Their primary goal is to reduce stalling speed, which is the speed that the aircraft must fly at to produce lift. Furthermore, they decrease the distance needed for takeoff and landing. Flaps were first used on aircraft in the 1910s but were not routinely used until the 1930s.
Flaps During Takeoff
During takeoff, flaps work to reduce the needed distance for takeoff by increasing the lift of the wings. In doing so, the aircraft is enabled to take off at a lower airspeed. Specifically, flaps will extend downwards at an angle of 5-15 degrees. This angle will create a greater pressure difference between the upper and lower part of the wing, thus increasing lift.
Flaps During Landing
Before the wheels touch the ground in a landing sequence, the goal is to keep the plane's lift and drag high. By maintaining a relatively high lift, the aircraft is enabled to land at a slower speed, while a greater drag permits a steeper descent angle. Both of these factors decrease the total length of runway needed for the aircraft to land. Typically, flight manuals call for a steeper angle of 20 to 40 degrees, which is usually close to the maximum extension for the flaps. However, once the airplane has touched down, the flaps are almost always put in the fully extended position, helping slow the plane to a stop.
Like every mechanical failure on an aircraft, flap failures are infrequent, and experienced pilots can quickly mitigate the negative consequences. The most common malfunction is a complete flap failure, and it will make the dynamics of landing much different. First, the length of runway needed to land will be drastically increased, which forces the pilot to begin slowing their airspeed much sooner. Moreover, the lack of drag will force the plane to land with a more nose-up approach, decreasing the visibility of the runway and causing the perception that the aircraft is close to stalling. The more dangerous and rare failure is the asymmetric or "split" flap. Here, one flap will deploy or retract while the other remains in the same place. This situation will require immediate compensation to maintain the wings at a level angle. Typically, the pilot will have to yaw the non-retracted side using the aileron to correct this defect.
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