# Can you fly an airplane at a 90° roll angle without losing altitude?

I've seen this answer to the question about flying upside-down, but tilted by 90°, there should be no surface creating lift (except maybe the vertical stabilizer).

• The vertical creates a significant downforce in knife-edge flight, so the rest of the airframe has to create even more lift than what is needed to carry its weight. Commented Feb 4, 2015 at 15:01
• No, but you can fly it at a 270° roll angle. /Shows himself the door... Commented Feb 4, 2015 at 18:32
• Given the right engine size anything can flight Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 17:50
• Indeed. All that is needed is a max TWR >= 1. Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 18:47
• the video link does not work Commented Jul 1, 2020 at 18:11

It depends. As always. If thrust is high enough, why not?

Knife edge flight is a regular part of aerobatic performances, and the fuselage is producing almost* all the needed lift. This requires

• Enough speed,
• A low ratio of aircraft mass to fuselage side area, and
• Enough rudder deflection to trim the aircraft in a sufficiently high sidelip angle.

For horizontal flight your installed thrust must be sufficient to compensate for the high drag in this attitude. This should be no problem with powerful propeller aircraft if their fuel system keeps them supplied at this attitude. Jets must make sure that the sideslip angle can be tolerated by the intake.

The smoke from the exhaust indicates that this biplane flies horizontally. Yes, it is a large model airplane (not man-carrying, but almost big enough for that). But the laws of physics don't change with scale. For an example of a full-size aircraft doing a knife edge, see this video. Thanks go to @romkyns for pointing this out to me!

Note the rudder deflection to keep it at this angle of sideslip. Direction is controlled with the elevator. At this rate of sideslip the propeller thrust contributes to overall lift as well, however, the vertical adds a substantial downforce in order to trim the aircraft and the fuselage has to supply the remaining lift.

* Almost means that the propeller will carry some of the weight, but the large downforce on the vertical needs to be compensated, too. In sum, the lift contributed by the fuselage is very close to the weight of the plane.

• That's a large scale unmanned aircraft in the photo. It operates just like a full scale aircraft but has less weight. That particular plane has enough power to hover on the propeller. I fly these regularly, and you can sustain knife-edge for the whole flight, but the propeller is providing the all lift, the fuse and wings really don't. Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 16:40
• @Jasmine: no, that's a real airplane flown by a real human.
– egid
Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 17:20
• flyinggiants.com is a model aircraft web site (I'm a member there - jasmine2501). Sometimes they do post full scale photos there, but the large planes we fly these days can not really be distinguished from the full scale versions on looks alone. This very well could be a model of Skip's plane. The point is still the same though - on planes like this the engine is providing all the lift and the fuselage is relatively not involved. Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 18:43
• @Jasmine Here's a photo of from Skip Stewart's own website of his plane in the same attitude: prometheusbiplane.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/… Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 20:30
• If you wish to include this in your answer, I've found a video of a full-sized biplane performing a perfect knife-edge. I think it illustrates that this is very much possible better than anything else. Commented Jun 27, 2015 at 23:54

Regular airplanes, no. They depend on lift produced by the wings and fuselage to stay airborne. No aircraft that I know of can produce enough lift with its component tilted 90°.

This all assumes 'normal' airplanes though. If you have enough thrust, there's nothing that says you need to depend on wings for lift, and if your thrust is vectored at least a little downwards producing enough of a vertical component to keep you from descending, it won't matter which direction anything else is pointing. The extreme example of this is of course space rockets.

• If you fly fast enough and with the nose high enough, almost any airplane fuselage would produce enough lift to maintain level flight... assuming it doesn't break apart first. As Peter's answer points out, this maneuver is performed commonly in aerobatic aircraft. The downward component of the thrust does help, but it's not nearly sufficient on its own to maintain level flight in most aircraft (jet fighters do commonly have thrust/weight ratios > 1, but most other aircraft don't.) Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 15:34
• Quite a few planes can do it. Among the more popular ones at airshows are the Pitts Special and Extra 300. The Su27 jet fighter have also been known to do this. Commented Jun 9, 2021 at 13:33

This happens (for several seconds at a time) as part of the "hesitation roll" aerobatic maneuver.

It depends on the fuselage alone for lift (in excess of the vertical component of thrust), so the nose has to point into the sky and the rudder is used to maintain that attitude. Because fuselages have rather dismal L/D it will require sufficient thrust, or bleed off a lot of speed.

• Well, it's not quite the fuselage alone is it? Doesn't some of the lift also come from the thrust (i.e. sin(pitch) * thrust)? The fuselage does provide the vast majority of it in most situations, though. Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 15:28
• @reirab: You're right, and the vertical stabilizer also contributes some, unless it needs to be killed by the rudder (which would depend on where the aerodynamic center of the fuselage in sideslip is located relative to the CoG). Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 16:40

During "normal" flight with wings level, the amount of lift generated will vary with the wings angle of attack (alpha). Within the normal flying envelope of the aircraft, the relationship between lift and alpha will be nearly linear.

In an ideal situation, with symmetric airfoil and not considering fuselage/slipstream effects, at zero degrees alpha, no lift will be generated.

There sideslip angle of the aircraft is normally called beta. In normal straight and level flight this is near zero, as no sideways lift is desired.

If you roll the aircraft 90 degrees and maintain it, you can with an alpha near zero and a sufficiently high beta angle generate sufficient sideways (now directed skywards) lift to maintain level flight, if the shape and size of the fuselage allow this. (This is the knife edge maneuver illustrated by the picture in Peter Kämpfs reply).

Aerobatic aircraft can be designed for this. Some aircraft might be able to maintain altitude momentarily in knife edge, but will be unable to maintain the relatively high airspeed required to do this, and will eventually start descending.

We do that all the time with our radio-controlled airplanes. It's called a knife-edge maneuver. Maintaining altitude is easy provided you have enough power and rudder surface area, but maintaining a straight line (with elevator) is usually very tough.

Not every radio-controlled aircraft can do it though. Usually the planes with small rudder deflection cannot hold altitude if their surface area is small. Aerobatic ones can do it all day along. In fact, an elegant way of coming out of this maneuver is to climb up at the end in that same orientation.

During this maneuver the nose of the airplane will always be a little higher (hence in a pitch up attitude) than the tail. I don't see anyone doing it without pitch up and still maintaining the altitude.

• "I don't see anyone doing it without pitch up and still maintaining the altitude." That's because, at least for normal aircraft designs, that isn't possible. Since you're using the combination of thrust and lift from the fuselage to maintain altitude, both of those things require a nose-up attitude for an airplane flying at 90 degrees bank angle. Both the net lift from the fuselage and the lift from the thrust will be zero if you're flying nose-level and 0 AoA. Of course, once you start descending, your AoA isn't zero any more, but you also obviously aren't maintaining altitude. Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 15:24

Not really all that complicated. It all depends on if the specific airframe is designed for such maneuvers and the power plant is robust enough for sustained operation in this mode of flight. MANY aircraft can sustain flight in horizontal flight with the wings 90 degrees to the ground. The Navy's Blue Angels and the USAF's Thunderbirds do this on a daily basis at their airshows. Moving an airfoil to 90 degrees, 180 degrees, 270 degrees, or even through 360 degrees (barrel roll) is accomplished through the wings ailerons. Most aircraft capable of aerobatic maneuvers have trim tabs on ailerons, rudder and elevator to assist in prolonging such maneuvers. Although most light aircraft do not have trim tabs on the rudder and elevator.

I have witnessed a Pilatus Porter (Fairchild) take off near vertical with less than a 40 foot ground roll. Granted it was stripped down and supercharged but it performed as advertised. I think there was a Youtube type video on this out there somewhere at one point. The demonstration was performed by the US Army in the 1970s.

• Hello exUSAATController, welcome at Aviation.SE. Please don't use the answer box for follow up questions. Instead you can create a new question and in it refer to this question. Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 6:43

Only if there is a force vector component pointing up.

Model planes tend to have a large rudder which provides lift when turned 90 degrees. Fighter jets have vectored nozzles that can turn to provide lift in a 90 degree maneuver.

Most passenger airplanes cannot perform such maneuvers.

• I'm unsure about your comment on Jets. If you mean "thrust vectoring" very few fighter jet have it, and it's only capable of creating yaw moments, not 90 degree left. And if you mean the lift nozels on a Harrier, they also cannot be turned enough to lift a harrier at 90 degrees and, even if they could, they are only on one side of the craft, so the craft would fall over. Fighters use the side of the craft to create the lift moment for sustained 90 degree flight. Check the main answer for clarifications... Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 14:37
• Yaw in level flight becomes pitch in 90 degree flight. Lets not be too technical with what does and does not have thrust vectoring. Point is 'Only if there is a force vector component pointing up' will an aircraft maintain 90 degree flight.
– BAR
Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 14:40
• Fair enough. My only point was that thrust vectoring can't be pointed down to create lift. When a plane is on it's side, thrust vectoring could be used to keep the nose pitched up, but the body is still what's creating the lift. Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 14:50