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Apologies if this is an elementary question. If I look at a diagram for parts of a plane, they don't distinguish verbally between left/right. If I try Googling for, say, "right wing" or "left wing", well you can guess the result!

Suppose I wish to identify a feature, say, the topmost left-side wing of a triplane, how do I do it?

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    $\begingroup$ Why isn't "right upper" or "left lower" adequately descriptive? $\endgroup$
    – Ralph J
    Jan 12, 2021 at 14:24
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    $\begingroup$ @chasly Due to sensible countries having the drivers seat on the right-hand side, 'left' and 'right' are more sensible than nearside and offside in many conversations about road vehicles. $\endgroup$ Jan 13, 2021 at 13:53
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    $\begingroup$ @chasly-supportsMonica If you describe something as being on "the left side of the boat", everybody will know what you're talking about. Boat people aren't dumb, just overly pedantic about vocabulary. $\endgroup$
    – Sneftel
    Jan 13, 2021 at 14:00
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    $\begingroup$ @chasly-supportsMonica The same confusion can occur even in aircraft written documentation. Even a phrase like "the left side when looking towards the front of the plane" is ambiguous: does it mean "when you are sitting in the cockpit looking forwards", or "when you are standing on the ground in front of the plane looking backwards"? $\endgroup$
    – alephzero
    Jan 13, 2021 at 15:59
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    $\begingroup$ @Sneftel Even people who can't tell left from right can learn that the port side is the one with the red navigation light. If they don't know the difference between port and vinho verde, they shouldn't be allowed anywhere near a boat ;) $\endgroup$
    – alephzero
    Jan 13, 2021 at 16:07

3 Answers 3

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While boats use port & starboard, aircraft (at least in the U.S.) generally don't. "Left" and "Right" work well for most things; when talking with flight attendants (on a large aircraft), "captain's side" and "first officer's side" serve the same purpose as "port" and "starboard" (i.e. the port or captain's side is the same side of the vehicle, regardless of whether it's on an individual's left or right at the moment). For maintenance purposes, the engines and certain other left/right-side components are referred to as the #1 and #2 (and #3 and #4 if you have them), and when talking with a pushback crew (who are in front of the airplane facing it -- so their "left/right" is opposite that of the pilots) it's common to refer to "the #1 side" (i.e. captain's) or "the #2 side" (i.e. F/O's). When we would back up the C-130, the loadmaster on the cargo ramp looking behind us would direct "turn toward #1" or "turn toward #4", which worked out nicely.

But, I don't think I've ever heard of wings referred to as #1 & #2, or really as anything other than left & right. (Those who've flown on aircraft carriers may report a different experience while at sea, I've not done that.) I'd say that the most general case would be to refer to a left/right wing, or on a biplane left upper, right lower, etc, and in a triplane, I'd have to assume left middle (or, perhaps less likely, left center) wing.

The Nav lights are generally referred to as left or right, at least in my carrier's operation. You could refer to them as "the red nav light" or "the green nav light" but I don't think that's particularly common.

Various different organizations will have their specific conventions, but as a general case, plain (or, "plane") English works well & is a good place to start until the preferred local terminology is introduced.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks. I'll digest that for a while to see if your answer raises any extra queries on my part. For the moment though it seems pretty comprehensive. $\endgroup$ Jan 12, 2021 at 21:34
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    $\begingroup$ When I was in the Air Force, the official position was that almost everything was numbered, left to right. This nomenclature was routinely used for engines, but even though if officially applied to wings as well, I don't recall hearing anybody ever actually use it for them. $\endgroup$ Jan 13, 2021 at 17:59
  • $\begingroup$ @JerryCoffin Yeah, anybody who mentions "the #2 wing" probably gets a sideways glance most of the time. "Left engine" and "Right engine" would be easy enough, but "left inboard" and "right outboard" start to get cumbersome, so #2 and #4 are easier there. (Might be fun to try to describe the different motors on the B-36 without numbering them... but probably not very efficient!) $\endgroup$
    – Ralph J
    Jan 13, 2021 at 19:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Jerry Coffin - That numbering holds for weapons stations as well. F-16, Sta 1-9, left to right. Sta 1 is the left wingtip, Sta 9 is the right wingtip. $\endgroup$
    – WPNSGuy
    Jan 13, 2021 at 23:53
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Any lateral confusion is dealt with in Ralph J's answer. The rest is straightforward:

For a biplane or triplane, vertical confusion should be eliminated by the usual upper, middle, lower.

Is there one uppermost wing or two?

This becomes clear in context. "The wing" without further qualification means the entire primary lifting surface, whether or not it is interrupted by the fuselage (for an airplane, but not for a bird!). "The left wing" or "the left uppermost wing" means the left half thereof.

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Don't overthink it. It's simple; left top (or upper), mid, and bottom (or lower), and right top (upper), mid, and bottom (lower) are perfectly clear and precise. On a biplane, just take out the mid, and on a monoplane, it's just left or right.

You can substitute port for left and starboard for right, but if the audience is outside the aviation/boating world, most people won't know what you're talking about and will have to look it up (and some pilots will also have forgotten and have to check which is which), so the majority of the time left and right is used.

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