In a comment on this answer to my previous question about tail-mounted airbrakes (lack of), @JohnK states:

You won't see flight spoilers (speed brakes) being used to steepen approaches. You have to be 10kt above Vref to extend them on a CRJ900 and you shouldn't be that hot in the first place, and you aren't allowed to use them at all below 300 ft.

Why do you have to be going abnormally fast to slow down with the spoilers, and why can't they be used at low altitude (especially given that, just like with airbrakes, it would seem to me like spoiler extension would be a safer method of slowing down than pulling the throttle all the way back would be, since, should a go-around become necessary, the spoilers can retract a lot more quickly than the engines can spool up from idle to TOGA)?

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    $\begingroup$ Engines are never at idle on approach until the landing flare for that exact reason. $\endgroup$
    – Ben
    Apr 12, 2019 at 5:00
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    $\begingroup$ They ARE used to steepen approaches - just ask anyone who's ever flown sailplanes. For why particular planes don't use them, or allow use only in particular circumstances, you'd have to ask the designers. But I'd suggest that a great part of the reason they aren't used in commercial airliners is that throttling the engine back produces a steep enough approach - it's the difference between the 12:1 glide ratio of a typical airliner versus the 50:1 or more of sailplanes. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Apr 12, 2019 at 16:10

5 Answers 5


They can. The Airbus A318 and Embraer E190 both do this in steep approach mode. You can see spoilers extended in this video of a A318 landing and a similar approach in an E190 at London City Airport.

Going back further, the Lockheed L-1011 did this with a system called Direct Lift Control. When landing flaps were selected, spoilers raised a set amount. Small movements on the yoke raised or lowered the spoilers instead of adjusting the elevators. This made for a very smooth approach and landing.

The common point is that these aircraft use electronics for spoiler control. It's too complicated to do this in a cable flight control system. You need to have the system retract the spoilers quickly in cases like go-around and stalls. As I recall, steep approach mode on the A318 activates a different set of gains on the flight control loops for better handling qualities in that configuration.

Finally, a number of fighters have the same system, and some glider pilots do this manually.

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    $\begingroup$ The F14 had DLC to help with carrier approaches. The A6 used spoilers instead of ailerons. Some pilots would finesse them and waggle the wings to get the left and right spoilers alternating, to drop the aircraft down onto a glideslope without messing with the pitch angle. $\endgroup$
    – MikeY
    Apr 12, 2019 at 13:11
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    $\begingroup$ Ditto the EA-6B! $\endgroup$ Apr 12, 2019 at 15:58

The main issue is the need to manage the vertical sink rate of your 100000+ lb aluminum trash can and the risks of hard landings.

Although they are often called speed brakes, the main effect of flight spoilers is to increase sink rate (without speeding up). On a landing approach at typical jet speeds of around 130kt you don't want to be descending any more than about 700-800 fpm (about what you get at that speed on a 3 degree slope). More than 1000 fpm is typically considered an unstablilized approach and necessitates a go around if at that sink rate below 1000 ft with many airlines.

In the landing configuration on a 3 degree ILS glide slope you are flying 99.9% of the time, you will normally need considerable thrust on, and small pitch and thrust adjustments are more than sufficient to precisely maintain the slope and sink rate.

The problem is having high sink rates close to the ground and having to arrest the sink at the bottom with all that mass/intertia doing downhill, when the only tool you have to do so is to increase overall lift by pitching up. Once the high sink is established, retracting the flight spoilers only helps a little and you have to pitch up (and add thrust, but that it is going to be delayed).

On airliners with leading edge slats and multi-slotted flaps that are super draggy in the landing configuration, unless you have a significant energy margin above Vref, the ability to arrest the sink rate with pitch is limited and there is little margin for error. Get a little bit below Vref and pull pitch, and not much happens until the thrust comes up. As a result there is a high risk that you'll continue sinking right through the landing flare and hit hard.

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    $\begingroup$ I've flown both the original CRJ200 with hard leading edges and the later 700/900 versions with slats, and the 200 is actually the more forgiving airplane to land because it is less draggy in the landing config and likes to coast along instead of dropping out. You go to idle at 50 ft on a 200 but have to leave power on down to the start of the flare in the slatted ones. Between that and the trailing link gear, nice landings with the 200 are effortless. Hard landings happen to pilots transitioning from the 200 to the 7/900 from pulling power too soon. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Apr 12, 2019 at 21:15

Spoilers are called spoilers, because they work by spoiling lift.

To slow the aircraft, or make it descend faster, it needs to dissipate the energy and that means increase drag. Disrupting the airflow over the wing creates a lot of drag due to stagnation behind the spoilers, and additional induced drag as the lift distribution is pushed further from optimal. After landing disrupting lift also puts more weight on the wheels, which makes the brakes more effective.

The price for it is, however, is that the aircraft flies at higher angle of attack to compensate for the lift reduction, and that means closer to stall. That means the aircraft must not fly as slow to maintain the safety margin, and shouldn't use spoilers at low altitude where there would not be enough height to recover in case of stall.

Gliders to normally use spoilers all the way to landing. Without engine, it is their only way to regulate the rate of losing energy. However a light slow glider can afford flying close to stall, because they can be recovered very quickly after retracting the spoilers. Their spoilers also tend to be relatively small, so they don't allow that steep approaches.

Airliners are another matter though. They have a lot of inertia, which makes them respond to control input rather slowly. Combined with their much higher speed it makes stall due to spoilers left out a bit too long a much bigger problem. Their spoilers are also larger as their primary functions are dumping lift on the ground and emergency descent, which is normally flown at maximum allowable speed.

As mentioned by @user71659, there are some aircraft that do use spoilers for steep approach, e.g. A318. But A318 has unusually low stall speed as it uses the same wings as A320 that are large for its weight, and its flight control computer is programmed to retract the spoilers (and spool up the engines) if it gets too close to stall.

It would be also possible to have the spoiler extend only a little bit, or only some of them, for steeper approaches. However, steep approaches are rare, so they are not worth the additional complexity in the control system for the purpose for most aircraft manufacturers and airlines.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't really follow the logic here. Admittedly my expertise is on gliders, but here it is: if you come with spoilers open yes, the stall speed is higher, but you can also fly closer to stall speed because closing the spoilers is an instantaneous way to recover lift. In gliders this works extremely well, shorter and smoother landings are achieved by coming with spoilers open on final. $\endgroup$ Apr 12, 2019 at 14:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Jan Hudec, no insult intended but your first paragraph reads like a case study in missing the point. You are saying that because lift is reduced the aircraft has to fly at a higher angle of attack and increase speed to counteract. Technically you are correct, but the whole point of using spoilers or speed brakes is to slow down and increase the rate of descent. Why counteract the very effects you are trying to achieve?! $\endgroup$ Apr 12, 2019 at 15:54
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelHall: I'll try to reword it. The point of using spoilers is indeed to slow down and increase the rate of descent, but that means dissipating energy by increasing drag and this is a way to create a lot of drag. But it has that downside. I didn't really want to explain the purpose, only the side-effect, because that is relevant for the question at hand. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Apr 12, 2019 at 19:41
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    $\begingroup$ @MartinArgerami, I am basically taking the quoted limitation of CRJ900 at face value. If spoilers are not allowed below Vref+10, there are not many possible reasons besides that it is considered too dangerous. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Apr 12, 2019 at 20:37
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    $\begingroup$ @JanHudec, drag isn't really a side effect though, drag is the primary effect. Slowing down is actually a side effect of the drag, but again if you put them out then that's what you want to do obviously. Your edit is better, but I still don't like this sentence: "higher angle of attack means closer to stall. That means the aircraft has to fly faster to maintain the safety margin" Again, technically there is nothing incorrect with this statement, but when would you ever extend spoilers and then accelerate to increase stall margin? $\endgroup$ Apr 12, 2019 at 21:03

The answer is yes, you CAN use spoilers (in a flight position!) to steepen an approach. The aircraft remains fully controllable and can be flared prior to touchdown with the spoilers in this position.

While it is safe, legal, and reasonable to do this, it’s considered a faux pas among professional airline and corporate pilots as high performance flying interferes with passenger comfort, especially for nervous flyers. Making the trip as uneventful and smooth as possible is part of a pilot’s job as well.


What it boils down to is brakes (aerodynamic, wheels, and reverse thrusters) and weight.

First the strategy for the massive airliner: come in as flat and slow as possible, set it down, and bring 200 tons to a stop. There for the best application of airbrakes is to have them as lifting devices. Slats and flats create an under and over cambered wing, which, while draggy (good here), produces the most lift at slow speeds. Steep approaches are out as the physics of inertia make this a "case study" of the dangers of rounding out at low altitude and crushing the landing gear with too high a rate of descent. Set it down easy, then brakes, reverse thrust, every airbrake available (including spoilers). A plane landing at 150 knots requires more than 2 times the braking force as a plane landing at 100 knots.

With a spoiler, you have to go faster to get the same amount of lift. With a flap, slower. Same drag. So in this case, you pivot the airbrake down.

Now for the sailplane strategy: steepen the angle of descent. If it is 50 feet high at the runway threshold it may sail right over a 3000 foot runway! We want drag and less lift, but how do we avoid stalling? By speeding up. Here, a little extra speed is no problem. Now you get the same lift at higher speed if you need it, rather than pitching up. Going faster in any case means less efficient gliding and more efficient air braking. The extra speed will not be a significant factor once the plane is down (getting it to stop).

So in this case, you pivot the airbrake up.

Same airbrake! Heavy, slow, flat - down. Light, fast, steep - up.

Depends on what you fly.

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    $\begingroup$ what do you fly? Do you fly gliders? I have flown gliders only a few times but I find your paragraph above very confusing... $\endgroup$ Apr 14, 2019 at 19:16
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    $\begingroup$ I don't like the paragraph regarding an airliner either. Nobody flies as "flat and slow as possible". Where did you come up with this? $\endgroup$ Apr 14, 2019 at 19:40
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    $\begingroup$ @Michael Hall multiengined large aircraft come in (see John K) at 3 degrees flaps down power up to minimize their rate of sink. I never did this with a single engine because you are below glide slope if the engine quits. But rate of descent with a very heavy aircraft is more easily controlled with a shallow, power on glide slope. Indeed, even with a 172, it makes the round out much easier. Contrasting with the sailplane, who makes its wing "smaller" by spoiling lift, so it can steepen its angle to make the runway. $\endgroup$ Apr 14, 2019 at 21:28
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    $\begingroup$ Well, that's the flip side of going too long. Again, the spoiler makes the wing "smaller", giving the plane a higher stall speed and more drag. It basicly works the fast side of Vbg. So, if you're going short, retracting spoiler will decrease the glide slope and increase the glide distance more lift and lower stall speed. So: spoiler - clean - flaps : decreasing stall speed. Spoiler - flaps (equal sized) - clean increasing range. Flaps and power (slow side of Vbg) lowest and slowest glide slope. $\endgroup$ Apr 15, 2019 at 14:19
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    $\begingroup$ You can do whatever you want in a simulator or fantasy world, but that isn't how it's done... $\endgroup$ Apr 15, 2019 at 15:48

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