If a pilot uses a notch of flaps on takeoff, when do they get retracted? At that time, what changes (i.e. climb rate, speed, pitch)?

NOTE: I have purposefully not specified the type of airplane.


The short answer is, it depends. The FAA Airplane Flying Handbook merely states that this can be performed once the aircraft has established positive climb, but does not specify exactly when.

Ultimately two situations arise:

  1. The airplane is sufficiently large/high performance that normal operating procedures specify the use of flaps for all takeoff scenarios, in which case the manufacturer or the operator (if applicable) may well specify a flap retraction schedule, which seeks to allow the aircraft to accelerate effectively during climb out, avoid overstressing the flaps by having the aircraft fly past the maximum speed for each flap setting, while at the same time maintain a comfortable margin above stall speed.
  2. The airplane only requires flaps for certain kinds of takeoffs such as maximum performance or soft-field efforts. In that case, procedures may be somewhat looser in defining the exact moment of flap retraction. A climb checklist, should you choose to use one, will likely mention the flap configuration as an action/verification item, so that would likely be a good moment to retract them if you haven't done so already. Personally , I usually retract them passing through 200-300 feet AGL, which usually coincides to the aircraft being at least half-way between clean configuration Vx and Vy (I've been mostly flying Skyhawks, Skylanes, Arrows, and Huskies). Whichever way you do it though, you want to avoid retracting them too low and too slow, but also forgetting about them and blowing through Vfe (which even light, slow airplanes can do quite handily).

With respect to the actual changes in aircraft behavior, you'll likely notice the following things:

  1. A slight-nose down moment as wing's characteristics change, which influences the airflow reaching your horizontal stabilizer. The converse applies when extending flaps. Mind you, this is an airplane model-specific thing and one that seemed most noticeable to me in the Cessna family of light singles.
  2. For the same power setting and pitch attitude, the aircraft will begin to accelerate quicker for each notch of flap retraction.
  3. Climb rate is trickier as it is dependent on your power setting, airspeed, and pitch angle; your inputs will matter. However, generally speaking, the reduction in drag would lead to a greater difference between power available (or power set) and power required, so, all things being equal, you would likely see an increase in climb rate.
  • $\begingroup$ awesome answer, but could you also link the meaning of Vx/Vy/Vfe? $\endgroup$ – Kheldar Apr 16 '15 at 21:34
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    $\begingroup$ Vx is the best angle of climb speed, Vy is best rate of climb, Vfe is maximum speed with flaps extended, and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V_speeds is a well-referenced, very comprehensive list of v-speeds $\endgroup$ – habu Apr 16 '15 at 22:22
  • $\begingroup$ Too bad I cannot upvote twice ^^ $\endgroup$ – Kheldar Apr 17 '15 at 8:23

Below is sample screen of a Boeing 777's Primary Flight Display. See those flaps marks on the speed tape?

enter image description here

Here's the thing: you don't want to retract the flaps from 5 to 1 when you're slower than the stall speed at flaps 1. So in terms of flaps retraction schedule, you'll:

  1. Accelerate to (at least) the minimum speed for flaps 5 in the takeoff roll.
  2. Pitch up really high (e.g. 12.5 degrees)
  3. Upon reaching acceleration altitude (a.k.a. flap retraction altitude), pitch down a bit (e.g. from 12.5 to 10 degrees) and let the aircraft accelerate.
  4. When the speed passes the "1" mark on the speed tape, set flaps 1.
  5. When the speed passes "up" on the speed tape, fully retract the flaps.

Acceleration altitude is usually 1,000 feet or 1,250 feet. So that really steep climb right after takeoff roll lasts only about 30 seconds.

If you're flying a small aircraft, chances are you'll only use flap in a short field takeoff. The general procedure would be similar:

  1. During takeoff roll, pitch up to Vx.
  2. Once clear of obstacles, adjust pitch to maintain Vy.
  3. As you adjust pitch from Vx to Vy, the aircraft accelerates. When you're confident that you're above the stall speed in clean configuration (or when you pass a manufacturer specified speed), retract the flaps.

According to a Boeing publication flaps are usually fully retracted at an altitude of about 3,000 ft. As you probably know flaps increase lift and drag. So as the plane increases speed (and thereby lift potential), the need for flaps decreases. I imagine by the time a plane reaches 3,000 feet is has attained enough air speed to no longer need flaps.

  • $\begingroup$ Boeing is very smart on building them, but what they recommend isn't always the way that they're flown. You'll find that 1000' is a much more typical altitude for the start of flap retraction for many airlines flying Boeing products. $\endgroup$ – Ralph J Apr 16 '15 at 1:10
  • $\begingroup$ No argument there. The PDF in question mentioned full flap retraction at about 3,000 feet. I actually meant to say something about their being retracted incrementally at some predetermined point but forgot. $\endgroup$ – BillDOe Apr 16 '15 at 1:12
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    $\begingroup$ Actually, that article talks about a 3000' retraction altitude, and a 1000' retraction altitude, concluding that the lower altitude saves 3-4% fuel burn (for the limited timeframe under consideration -- not the whole flight). The advantages of the earlier retraction probably are NOT news to the major operators! $\endgroup$ – Ralph J Apr 16 '15 at 1:18

I fly for a commercial airline, which is different, bit I also fly light planes and as a CFI I flight instructed in them for hundreds of hours. In a nutshell, I taught if you were in flatland areas with no terrain/obstacles to clear, retract the flaps at 300-500 feet AGL in the climbout, as long as you have adequate airspeed and are accelerating. You then have to trim nose up a bit to keep the climb rate up due to the loss of flap lift. No need to over complicate this. In mountainous terrain, or in a canyon, or on very short fields with obstacles nearby or at high altitudes where performance is degraded, pilots often elect to delay flap retraction and gain better slow speed climb performance. Depends on the situation. Hope that helps! Fly safe and have fun!

  • $\begingroup$ I can't remember when I upvoted this answer, how I missed this, but could you please update your answer regarding "better slow climb performance". Flaps never improve climb perfomance, under any circumstance. I am spending hours trying to convince people believing their airplane is climbing better with flaps, and this answer is not helping :-) $\endgroup$ – Radu094 Jan 21 '19 at 16:53

First and foremost, in light planes flaps should be retracted above VS and below VFE.

In a C172, you have:

VS 47kts Stall Speed in Clean Configuration.

VFE 139kts 10 Degrees Flap Extended, 85kts 20-30 Degrees Flap Extended.

That's a pretty wide range, so it would be hard to get it wrong, and as a matter of safety, you would probably want to use the approach multiplier of 1.3 as the minimum, which is 61.

So next question is, what is the effect of raising the flaps in a climb? Most importantly, raising the flaps decreases the angle of attack, which decreases induced drag, so raising the flaps earlier is better, so somewhere in the range of 61-71 for the Cessna.

[It has been suggested that "positive rate" should be used for flaps, but I disagree. Unlike gear, which is all drag, 10% flaps are mostly lift, with very little added induced drag. Higher flaps settings for short= and soft-field takeoffs have a different set of considerations.]

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    $\begingroup$ Raising the flaps increases angle of attack and leaves induced drag almost unaffected since the total amount of lift that needs to be created does not change. Only when you speed up those effects are as you mentioned. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Apr 16 '15 at 19:22
  • $\begingroup$ yes, you're accellerating to Vy $\endgroup$ – rbp Apr 16 '15 at 22:35

The lift flaps generate is directly proportional to speed but the drag they introduce is proportional to speed squared. Double the speed, double the lift, quadruple the drag.

As the aircraft accelerates after take-off, the extra lift generated by having the flaps extended will be countered by the extra drag generated by the increased speed so they are retracted in stages to maintain that balance.

  • $\begingroup$ Why was this upvoted? It is almost entirely wrong. The only correct thing I can see is that drag is proportional to the square of velocity. $\endgroup$ – Simon Apr 17 '15 at 6:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Simon, Could you add a little more detail. It is not obvious from your comment which bit you are confused by. $\endgroup$ – Paul Smith Apr 20 '15 at 13:09
  • $\begingroup$ Lift is not directly proportional to speed, it is proportional to the square of the speed, as is drag (which you have correct). Flaps are not retracted on a schedule to "maintain that balance". $\endgroup$ – Simon Apr 21 '15 at 11:40
  • $\begingroup$ You are (technically) correct, however L ~ v^2.S while D ~ v^2.C $\endgroup$ – Paul Smith Apr 21 '15 at 15:27
  • $\begingroup$ You are (technically) correct, however L ~ v^2.S while D ~ v^2.C where S is the change in surface area and C is the change is cross section so if S goes from 2 to 3 and C goes from 2 to 4, then at speeds 2, 4 and 8, L2=8->12, D2=8->16, L3=18->27, D3=18->36, L4=32->48, D4=32->64 so as airspeed increases, lift increases but drag increases faster. $\endgroup$ – Paul Smith Apr 21 '15 at 15:36

at small aircrafts, you usually don't have any intermediate flaps setting between 10 and clean. As we know, when flaps selected, take off roll is reduced, so as the climb performance. Clean configuration increases ground distance but improves climb ability. In ideal take off, you should retract flaps at point where flaps path and clean path meet each other, to obtain best possible climb out. (you always want to be "on the upper line of diagram").

For Cessna 152 it is about 200-300ft


Let's just start by stating that Flaps allow you to fly slower, but they generate a lot of extra drag. You are paying the price of slower speeds by using more power to fly, and also by having a reduced climb performance. This alone means that the pilot usually wants to retract the flaps to a clean configuration as-soon-as-possible. How soon that is, is a bit more complicated to answer.

For starters, you need a specific (safe) speed for each notch of flaps to be retracted. Stall speed will increase every time you retract a notch of flaps so you want to be well above that speed before putting your hand on the flaps lever.

So, in theory, the second the wheels are off the ground, you can just level off, keep flying a few feet above ground and keep accelerating until a safe speed is reached then retract flaps all the way to a clean config.

While some bush pilots might actually do exactly that, in practice there will be obstacles and terrain you might be worried about once you use up all of your available runway. For instance, most runways (unless otherwise stated) will ensure obstacle clearance for a 2.5% climb gradient. (2.5 meters climb for every 100 meters away from runway threshold)

So, in theory, this becomes: the second the wheels are off the ground,you can continue to climb at a necessary 2.5% gradient to avoid the obstacles, speed up, then retract the flaps whenever you reach the speed that you can safely retract them.

It is the most efficient way, and it is what any pilot/aircraft/airline would do if allowed. In practice many regulations, like noise abatement, and manufacturer manual would dictate how your climb profile and flaps retraction schedule would look like:

Eg. NADP 1 will require you to climb in t/o configuration until at least 3000 feet before beginning to accelerate and retract

NADP 2 on the other hand will allow you to start accelerating as soon as 800' AGL (while still continuing to climb at 2.5% mind you), using t/o power on the engines until 3000'


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