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As usually depicted, in a small aircraft (maybe larger commercial ones too), the lift due to the main wing (excluding the elevator) is depicted as on average aft of the center of gravity, with the negative lift of the elevator compensating for the resulting torque in straight and level flight. This is longitudinally stable because a slight pitch up movement will increase the AOA on the wing and, up to stalling, the resulting increase in lift acting behind the CG will cause a pitch down torque, and vice versa.

My confusion is about stalling. When the main wing stalls its lift decreases, resulting in pitch up torque. So why does the nose drop? You can, I believe, trim a small plane so that it will execute a series of pitch up, stall, pitch down, recover cycles with no input from the pilot. What is the explanation of the pitch down torque on a stalling aircraft? Is it due to the elevator losing (negative) lift as the airspeed drops?

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What is the explanation of the pitch down torque on a stalling aircraft?

Sometimes this is a simple matter of wing design. In setting our aircraft for most efficient flight, through a combination of trim and ballast, we can set the aircraft center of gravity at, or near, the center of lift, so that little trim is needed to maintain level flight. In other words, the center of lift for the full wing is at and through the center of gravity.

Most wings are designed with slight washout, meaning that the outer panel of the wing has been twisted to reduce the angle of attack of the wing in that outer panel region. If we examine lift across the entire wing with the airplane in trim, the center of lift for the wing is through the center of gravity for the plane. And, considering flight speed and wing loading, the center of lift may be very slightly ahead of the center of gravity. Why? One additional factor at play is the pitching moment of the wing. In neutral flight, most wings have a negative pitching moment, meaning the wing has a very slight tendency to pitch downward even when the aircraft is in trim.

As the wing stalls, the stall progression usually begins at the wing root and progresses outward across the inner panel of the wing. The wing tip, however, is unstalled because washout gives that section of the wing a lower angle of attack. Consequently, absent lift from the functional inner panel, the center of lift for the outer panel is slightly behind the center of gravity, thereby causing a slight nose-down moment during the stall. This can be assisted by the very slight downward pitching moment of this unstalled portion of the wing. Hence, the nose pitches down.

You can, I believe, trim a small plane so that it will execute a series of pitch up, stall, pitch down, recover cycles with no input from the pilot.

As we can well imagine, if the airplane is in a near-trim condition, and a stall is incurred, the nose will pitch forward and the aircraft will gain airspeed. As this occurs, the unstalled condition of the wing is restored, and with the center of lift restored, the aircraft will gently pitch nose-up in recovery. If the pilot does not capture this recovery with a slight down elevator trim input, the aircraft will continue on an upward path, losing airspeed, and once again stall. This process may continue ad-infinitum until corrective action is taken.

Some aircraft are designed so that the wing is completely neutral; the center of lift for the wing is always through the center of gravity for the plane. The nose down tendency of the wing is incurred then, only by the pitching moment of the wing. Consequently, the plane must be actively flown to maintain its flight attitude. What planes fly like this? Think pylon racers. Or Mike Patey's Turbulence. (Oh, boy!)

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    $\begingroup$ I don't think washout has much to do with it. My understanding is that washout has two benefits: stalls are gradual and ailerons retain some control effect. I think what others have said here or linked to about the elevator weathervaning as the the plane starts to drop is the explanation. Also, the center of lift for the main wing is not at the longitudinal CG, it's behind it. The elevator's negative lift counteracts that resulting torque. $\endgroup$ Aug 19, 2023 at 19:40
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    $\begingroup$ "Consequently, absent lift from the functional inner panel, the center of lift for the outer panel is slightly behind the center of gravity" you have a swept-back wing in mind, correct? In that case your explanation doesn't work for airplane with a straight wing, like many GA airplanes. You have also forgot to mention one of the most important aspects making the airplane pitching nose down i.e. the change of the AoA of the tail when the wing stalls $\endgroup$
    – sophit
    Aug 19, 2023 at 20:04
  • $\begingroup$ @FosterBoondoggle My apologies, but I do not know of anyone who flies that way. Zero trim is the rule of the day. That means flying a balanced airplane having no negative elevator lift. The view I presented was just one aspect not intended to be all encompassing and universal. That was clear in my initial paragraph. $\endgroup$ Aug 22, 2023 at 3:53
  • $\begingroup$ @sophit I am not going to get into a comment argument with you on this issue. Evidently, you have studied Gracian and know him well. The swept wing tends to stall at the tip first. And as I mentioned to Foster, the airplane is in trim. The answer I presented was simply one aspect, apparently from a different than usual point of view. There are many others, such as yourself, who could add perspective with a different view. $\endgroup$ Aug 22, 2023 at 4:02
  • $\begingroup$ @ThomasPerry: we can exchange also without arguing 😉. I don't know Gracian, I'll have a look at it. Your answer in correct I just wanted to add an important ingredient which is the change in the AoA of the tailplane when the root of the wing stalls 🖖 $\endgroup$
    – sophit
    Aug 22, 2023 at 8:06

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