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According to the NTSB report on the crash of United Airlines Flight 585, the ability of the 737’s lateral controls (ailerons and flight spoilers) to counteract the rolling forces produced by (say) a rudder hardover is considerably worse at lower flap settings, such that, in some cases, a hardover occurring with the airplane’s flaps fully extended might produce only minor control difficulties, whereas the same malfunction occurring with the flaps at (say) the ten-degree setting would result in a loss of directional control (pages 60-61 of the report; pages 78-79 of the PDF file of the report):

...Flap position and airspeed are important when determining controllability during a rudder hardover condition. With the rudder at about 25 degrees airplane nose right (ANR), the following conditions would exist at 150 to 160 knots calibrated airspeed (KCAS). Bank angles are noted as left or right wing down (LWD, RWD) and provide constant heading trim solution (no turns), except for the last case.

Rudder Angle …… Flaps …… Side Slip Angle …… Wheel Angle …… Bank Angle

25 ANR …………… 40 ……… 14 ANR ……………… 35 LWD ……… 18 LWD

25 ANR …………… 30 ……… 15 ANR ……………… 44 LWD ……… 17 LWD

25 ANR …………… 25 ……… 15 ANR ……………… 68 LWD ……… 16 LWD

23 ANR* ………… 15 ……… 17 ANR ……………… 107 LWD ……… 23 LWD

21 ANR* ………… 10 ……… 16 ANR ……………… 107 LWD ……… 19 LWD

25 ANR** ………… 10 ……… 13 ANR ……………… 107 LWD ……… 40 RWD

* Less than full rudder allowed to maintain directional control.

** Loss of directional control.

At 10 and 15 degrees of flap setting, heading cannot be maintained with full rudder deflection. If full right rudder is achieved with a 10-degree flap setting, for example, heading control is lost and, according to Boeing, a steady 40-degree right-wing-down trim solution is attained that results in turning flight to the right even with full left wheel deflection...

Why, for a given airspeed, do the 737’s lateral controls become increasingly ineffective as the flaps are retracted?

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Okay, turns out this wasn't so different from the crossover-airspeed question after all!

To quote @PeterKämpf's answer to that question:

how can [an airplane’s ailerons and spoilers] lateral control authority surpass that of the rudder past a certain speed?

This depends on the wing's lift coefficient. At a higher lift coefficient the lower aileron can not add the same amount of lift that it could at a lower lift coefficient. While the raised aileron on the opposite side will still reduce lift locally, the lowered aileron becomes less effective in raising lift as the lift coefficient increases. A higher lift coefficient causes a higher suction peak near the leading edge and puts more stress on the boundary layer, and adding more of the same will become harder as the wing approaches stall conditions.

Another factor is adverse yaw which increases with lift coefficient. This adverse yaw will add to the yawing moment of the hard-over rudder and will increase sideslip, which in turn will produce more rolling moment from dihedral against the aileron effect. As adverse yaw dies down with lower lift coefficient, so does sideslip angle and the ailerons gain control power.

Which also explains why the 737's crossover airspeed is lower with flaps down; when the flaps are up, the aircraft has to fly at a higher angle of attack in order to generate the same amount of lift at the same speed. This increases the lift coefficient over the entire wing, including the outboard portion where the ailerons are mounted, which makes the downwards-deflected aileron, to use Peter Kämpf's terminology, "less effective in raising lift", and increases the adverse yaw generated by the deflected ailerons. All of which decreases the roll authority of the ailerons, and, since the spoilers' roll authority can't increase to compensate, decreases the roll authority of the aircraft's lateral controls as a whole.

With the flaps down, on the other hand, the lift coefficient of the inboard wing increases, which means that the rest of the wing doesn't have to generate as much lift, which means that the aircraft can fly at a lower angle of attack for a given speed, which decreases the lift coefficient of the outer, flapless, aileron-containing section of the wing, which increases the effectiveness of the lowered aileron and decreases the adverse yaw generated by the ailerons, which increases the aircraft's roll authority.

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  • $\begingroup$ Which boils down to "should the rudder be stronger than the ailerons". I would think the trim shouldn't be, manual control, yes. No way the rudder should "hard over" by trim only to the point the plane is unflyable at any speed. If the plane is "fly by wire", something must be done (by design) to be able to maintain control of the plane. $\endgroup$ – Robert DiGiovanni Jan 25 at 12:21
  • $\begingroup$ Noted that directional control is maintained at higher flap settings due to unflapped aileron portion of wing at lower AoA. $\endgroup$ – Robert DiGiovanni Jan 25 at 12:24

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