Even low performance airplanes like ultralights have their tail group (vertical and horizontal stabilizer with rudder and elevator) swept backwards knowing fully well that a straight tail group will produce more force than a swept tail group of the same area. Is the sweeping of an airplane's tail group simply aesthetics or is there some aerodynamic advantage involved?

The reason why I'm asking is because I'm trying to design and build an ultralight and was wondering if I can just build a straight rectangular tail group as seen below (for the sake of simplicity). enter image description here
(source: fbcdn.net)

  • $\begingroup$ Get rid of "tryna". Also there are PLENTY of aircraft with non-swept tail groups. For example, most sailplanes. $\endgroup$ Jun 5, 2019 at 2:53
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ You know 'tryna' is in the dictionary?..Urban dictionary.😁 $\endgroup$ Jun 5, 2019 at 11:38

3 Answers 3


There is more to it than just looks.

One immediate benefit is a more backward location of the center of pressure on the backwards swept surface. But that effect is small and has to be bought with a lower lift curve slope, i.e. lower effectivity at low angles of attack rsp. sideslip.

But once sweep is big enough, it will extend the useable range of sideslip angles at which the tail is effective. Sweep reduces the lift curve slope but extends its linear range to higher angles, so the maximum lift per area of a swept surface is about as high as that of an unswept surface. This is especially true for low aspect ratio wings where the outward movement of the boundary layer is not a big factor. Therefore, the aerodynamics of a vertical tail suffer much less from the usual sweep effects we know from swept wings.

Adding a fillet ahead of the root of the vertical tail increases this effect further and has been instrumental in making designs like the Boeing 307 spin proof. Before that change the Boeing 307 prototype suffered separated flow on the vertical in a spin and crashed when the aircraft oversped in an attempt by the pilot to end the spin by applying differential thrust.

While the wing operates in a narrow range of angle of attacks and straightens the airflow for the tail, so the horizontal tail is able to work within an even narrower range, the fuselage creates an unstable yawing moment over a much larger range of angles of sideslip. In order to have enough directional stability even at high angles of sideslip, a swept vertical tail is very helpful. Yes, this swept tail needs to be larger than an equivalent vertical tail which is designed for single-digit angles of sideslip, but this straight tail will render the aircraft unstable once it ventures into higher sideslip angles.

Reference: NLR Report A-1582. Sorry, I found no online source. It is discussed in Ed Obert's "Aerodynamic design of Transport Aircraft" on page 418.

Horizontal tails do not need the extended working range - here, it is enough to add stabilizer trim in order to adjust tail lift for different wing flap settings. Besides, building a horizontal tail with a swept hinge line is much more complicated than building a straight hinge line, so most horizontal surfaces have just a little sweep such that taper and sweep together result in a straight hinge line.

But there is one exception: In the early 70s many glider designs used a full-flying, swept horizontal tail, like this Standard Cirrus below (picture source):

Standard Cirrus in flight

This is obviously not for compressibility. By sweeping the tail its center of gravity can be moved close to its center of pressure, so this tail needs no mass balance and has low actuation forces. The downside is the rigid, symmetrical airfoil: At low speed and higher angle of attack it has very little effectivity because the flow stays separated while a conventional tail with a fixed stabilizer will already show attached flow. This led to a number of fatal crashes in winch launches when the aircraft would pitch up into a stall and could not be controlled.

  • $\begingroup$ I've flown an LS-1 which has the same tail and which flew great stick fixed, but stick free, having no anti-servo tab, it seemed to get pretty much all of its static stability from the trim bungee. Stick free it was slowly divergent, and I felt that without the bungee providing some centering force it would have been all over the place stick free. I let it go while eating a sandwich once, and eventually it was diving to Vne and pulling up to near stall even though it was trimmed to about 60kt.Perhaps the bungee was weak. Since you don't actually fly them that way, it wasn't really a problem. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Jun 4, 2019 at 22:07
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnK: Yes, flew an LS-1f myself (but not often). You are right about that bungee. Since you could fly a classic phygoid without falling into a spiral dive first, at least lateral stability was pretty decent ;-) $\endgroup$ Jun 5, 2019 at 5:46
  • $\begingroup$ I really enjoyed flying it. Then it was crashed following a mid-air. The characteristic I really liked was that full aileron and full rudder applied at the same time gave a more or less coordinated roll, making the initial crank and bank turn-in when you found a thermal effortless. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Jun 5, 2019 at 13:05
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnK Then you flew it just at the right speed. Normally, the adverse yaw gets smaller when you fly faster, so less rudder is needed. $\endgroup$ Jun 5, 2019 at 14:25
  • $\begingroup$ This is a must read, and the horizontal stabilizer can benefit too from front leading edge sweep for stall recovery. Amazing how many things the 1910 Etrich Taube had right. $\endgroup$ Feb 7 at 21:27

There is no doubt some aerodynamic benefit to sweeping tails on high speed airplanes, and there is some benefit, as Zeiss says, in that there is a modest increase in moment arm without lengthening the fuselage (on the other hand, the sweep imparts a small pitching moment when the rudder is displaced, but it's not enough to be a big deal).

At any rate, on just about all lower speed aircraft, especially GA ones, it's really just "styling"; one of the only places in aircraft design where form supersedes function.

In the early to mid 60s Cessna changed the vertical tails on their models from straight to swept. This had absolutely no effect on performance. It was pure styling because a swept tail looked more "modern" (It's also the time when they came out with silly marketing names like "Land-O-Matic gear".. you know, spring steel leaf or rod gear legs). Meanwhile pretty much all horizontal tails have remained straight. Why? Nobody cares how it looks from below. It's all about the profile.

So if there is a major technical benefit to sweeping a tail on a particular design, you can generally expect to see the horizontal tail also swept. Otherwise, styling.

  • $\begingroup$ Horizontal tails stayed straight because a straight hinge line is much easier to build than a swept one. On a vertical which extends only to one side this makes no difference, but once there are two sides that need to meet in the middle it is better to keep them straight. $\endgroup$ Jun 4, 2019 at 20:49
  • $\begingroup$ Nonetheless, if there was significant benefit beyond looks they would have swept horizontal tails. The only low speed airplanes I can think with a swept horizontal tail is the Aerostar, and IIRC, the Swearingen homebuilt and in those cases I expect they were going after a little bit of extra arm. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Jun 4, 2019 at 21:04
  • $\begingroup$ Other reason for straight horizontal tail is preventing elevator strike on runway when landing or taking off at minimal speed. Cessna 152 with swept horizontal tail should either place it higher, or further forward, or set some dihedral on it. $\endgroup$
    – jkztd
    Jun 4, 2019 at 22:39
  • $\begingroup$ @Peter Kämpf: Horizontal tails don't need to meet in the middle on most GA aircraft. They generally have left and right sections separated by the fuselage, so it would be possible to have them be asymmetric. I'd guess that a more important factor would be allowing a single straight support beam that passes through the fuselage $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Jun 5, 2019 at 5:24
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf: Like a wing, they need a spar. Swept spars are heavier and harder to build (added torsion at the root). Also, it helps a lot if both sides of the elevator have a mechanical connection. Otherwise an antimetric mode of the tail can couple with fuselage torsion and cause flutter. Doing this with a cardan joint is more complex and adds another failure mode. It is just not worth it. $\endgroup$ Jun 5, 2019 at 5:40

One reason is to save weight.

It goes like this: the further to the rear the tail surfaces are, the smaller (and lighter) they can be, but fuselage structure is heavy. If you make the surfaces swept, the area is moved to the rear, but little if any weight is added compared to unswept surfaces.

Beyond the actual weight saved at the tail, we used to say in model building that "an ounce at the tail is worth a pound at the nose." That's because of moment arms; a tiny amount of weight in the tail may require a very large mass of structure (or even ballast) near the nose to keep the center of mass where you need it for stability.

  • $\begingroup$ Smaller planes: Marketing. Look at Mooney, straight tail, vs Cessna/Piper/Bonanza. All went to swept tails because it looked faster. $\endgroup$
    – CrossRoads
    Jun 4, 2019 at 19:29

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