What design considerations go into the decision between conventional tails and T-tails? Functionally the horizontal stabilizer/stabilator are the same in both cases, providing negative lift, the elevator control and a method for pitch trim. What are the differences though?

As far as I am aware the T-tails I have flown have T-tails for avoiding propwash (PA-44) or aft engine placement (EMB-145). Are there other reasons for having a T-tail? What are the aerodynamic consequences a pilot needs to be aware of with a T-tail (e.g. avoiding hard de-rotation on touchdown, issues at high AOA, etc)?

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ For gliders with T-tails the additional structural complications/weight are offset by less interference drag and more clearance for those special outlandings (think a barley field). $\endgroup$ – yankeekilo Jan 28 '14 at 21:28
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Though on most aircraft the horizontal stabilizer does indeed produce negative lift, for positive stability it is only required that the rear surface flies at lower angle of attack than the forward surface. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Apr 1 '14 at 18:11

There is more to a T-tail than that:


  1. The placement on top of the vertical gives it more leverage, especially with a swept tail.
  2. Depending on wing location, it stays in undisturbed flow in a stall. Note: This is really depending on the details, the HFB-320 had a forward swept wing and a T-tail, which made a deep stall possible (and in one case fatal).
  3. By designing the junction with the vertical well, the T-tail has less interference drag. It also helps to reduce wave drag, especially when using a well designed Küchemann body (the round, long, spiky thing on the tail junction of a Tu-154) by stretching the structure lengthwise.
  4. It can help to increase the effectiveness of the vertical tail by keeping the air on both sides of it separated. At the other end, the fuselage does this already, so moving the horizontal tail up does not hurt so much there. As a consequence, the tail can be built lower.


  1. The mass of the horizontal tail on a long lever arm (= the vertical tail) means that the torsional eigenfrequency of the fuselage will go down. This might be a problem in case of flutter.
  2. As a consequence of the smaller vertical tail, a T-tail can be lighter. Note that the increased leverage means that the horizontal tail can be smaller as well. This reduces friction drag and is the main reason why most modern gliders have T-tails.


A T-tail produces a strong nose-down pitching moment in sideslip.

If it were not for the flutter and pitch-down, T-tails would be more widespread ...

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ uhmmm very interesting but now I can't understand why commercial airliner strictly prefer conventional tail instead of T-Tail. With all these advantages, why at least some of commercials does not consider this solution? (apart some minor commercial airplanes, I saw it above all in military ones like C5 and C-17) $\endgroup$ – Luca Detomi Oct 10 '16 at 9:34
  • $\begingroup$ @LucaDetomi: Airliners with their sweptback wings run the risk of deep stall if the tail is too high. Also, the flutter speed and required stiffness is a real problem and should not be taken lightly. After the Felthorpe Trident crash, Tupolev increased the tail on the Tu-134 by 30%, just to be safe from deep stall. This kind of modification makes a T-tail less attractive than a conventional tail. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Oct 10 '16 at 11:03

There's a lot to this, and I'm no aircraft engineer, so if there are any other answers, I'll happily delete this. Anyway, from what I've been told:

The T-tail sticks the elevators out of the disturbed air of the wings, prop, and (usually most of) the fuselage which gives you better elevator authority, and makes a tail stall less likely.

It has some drawbacks though, by putting the elevators directly in the (turbulent) separated flow from the wings during a stall can put you in a (more or less) unrecoverable deep stall.

Deep stall

(Picture from the linked Wikipedia article)

  • $\begingroup$ For the most part this is correct, although if airflow is disrupted over the tail the nose should actually come down because the horizontal stabilizer is what holds the nose up in the first place. I suppose depending on the aircraft and the weight and balance situation though maybe it is possible. $\endgroup$ – p1l0t Jan 29 '14 at 14:44
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @p1l0t; you are correct; I was however under the impression that the condition is more or less stable, pushing the tail back into the vortex when it tries to leave (such as when the nose tips over due lack of rear downward pressure). I can't really say I know the aerodynamics of it though, so I might be very mistaken. $\endgroup$ – falstro Jan 29 '14 at 14:48
  • $\begingroup$ I suppose it is possible to disrupt the flow enough to where the controls are ineffective but not enough that it can still hold the nose pitched up to a stall although it seems like long shot and/or a poor design. Most of the (small aircraft) T-tails I have flown it takes a bit of extra effort to stall the aircraft hard because gently the disruption just lets the nose back down and then you aren't stalled anymore. $\endgroup$ – p1l0t Jan 29 '14 at 14:55
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ in large a/c deep stalls can get quite stable because of fuselage lift and (especially in case of airliners) sweptback wings that move center of pressure forward when stalling. For smaller aircraft though it is very difficult to hold nose high enough to overshadow a T-tail $\endgroup$ – Radu094 Jan 29 '14 at 22:20
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @p1l0t: It should be, yes, but if the aircraft's COM is too far back for some reason... $\endgroup$ – Sean Jan 24 at 1:56

The considerations in the roe's answer are entirely correct but there might be other factors to take into account.

First, it is true that using conventional tail leads to the fact that the airflow over the tail might be disturbed by the main wing and/or the engines and/or the fuselage. However, the downwash induced by the main wing on the flow is taken into account (for the cruise conditions) in the design of the tail in order to reduce some negative aspects of the interaction between the main wing and the tail.

Another major difference between these two configurations concerns the stability. As I already explained in this answer, the tail is used to create some lift that is required to fulfil the trim relations. Regarding the "vertical" force equilibrium equation, there is no real difference between the two configurations but there is a big one for the moment equilibrium.

Assuming that you have the same amount of lift generated by the both configurations (this is relevant due to the "vertical" force equilibrium), a quick sketch will convince you that both the angle and the lever arm are different. The conclusion of this study cannot be drawn without a specific example but I hope it is clear for you that stability is really impacted by the choice of the tail.

From a structural point of view, when flying transonic (or even supersonic) it is not good to have a T-tail configuration because it usually induces flutter on the tail.

Finally, at a lower level but still a difference, using a T-tail increases the wake (compared to a conventional configuration, where the tail is almost in the wake of the main wings and the fuselage) behind your aircraft and thus the drag you need to overcome is larger.

  • $\begingroup$ I am not so sure about your argument for added drag... $\endgroup$ – yankeekilo Jan 30 '14 at 13:43
  • $\begingroup$ @yankeekilo But you do agree that the wake is wider? $\endgroup$ – Ludovic C. Jan 30 '14 at 13:45
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ hmmm... "wake size" is quite undefined. The resulting drag is what counts. A stabilizer in undisturbed airflow will produce better L/D than in turbulent flow, as well. So unless you have some sources for that argument, I would not buy into it. $\endgroup$ – yankeekilo Jan 30 '14 at 13:49

A T-tail has structural and aerodynamic design consequences. The structural considerations are of course the increased weight of the vertical tail due to now having to support the forces and moments on the horizontal tail, including strengthening for flutter. The vertical tail can be shorter due to the end plate effect of the horizontal tail, and the moment arm to the CoG is longer - however for most higher subsonic speed aircraft these effects merely reduce the weight penalty.

The T-tail stays out of ground effect for longer than the main wing. Upon approaching the ground, the increase in wing lift causes an auto-flare: the aircraft lands itself. From the wikipedia page of the Handley Page Victor:

One unusual flight characteristic of the early Victor was its self-landing capability; once lined up with the runway, the aircraft would naturally flare as the wing entered into ground effect while the tail continued to sink, giving a cushioned landing without any command or intervention by the pilot.

Photo from the wiki page as well

The aerodynamic consequences of a T-tail have most to do with stability and control in stall and post-stall behaviour, and can be grave. The Fokker 28 and F100 had stick pushers that acted upon detecting a high angle of attack, making it pretty much impossible to keep the columns at aft position. The reason for this is the reversal of the $C_M$ - $\alpha$ slope of T-tails, as depicted below.

from Torenbeek, Synthesis of Subsonic Airplane Design.

  • Graph A is for a tail height of 2 * MAC
  • Graph B for 1 * MAC
  • Graph C for same height as MAC

The aeroplane is aerodynamically stable when the $C_M$ - $\alpha$ slope is negative, such as in cases B and C. For configuration A, the slope becomes positive after the stall point, meaning that the nose wants to increase upwards after reaching the stall - not a good situation.

The stall speed must be demonstrated during certification, and safe recovery from a stall is a requirement. A stick pusher prevents the aeroplane from entering the deep stall area.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.