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According to the PHAK ch. 6 and this description regarding Ameristar 9363, one type of tab on an elevator is supposed to "decrease the pressure the pilot needs to exert on the flight controls." This is the tab I'm asking about.

  1. Where does the force go – does the plane get the same amount of pitch control with or without this tab?
  2. When its purpose is to reduce the pilot's exertion, how does the use of this tab differ from making the whole elevator smaller?

In researching this question, I found a lot of different names for these tabs, so feel free to clear that up as well. Thanks for any responses.

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3 Answers 3

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A tab is like an additional, miniature control surface, with its own change in lift. Since it sits near the trailing edge of a larger control surface, this lift change affects the hinge moment of the larger surface.

There are several types of tabs:

  1. The simplest is a strip of metal which can be bent on the ground so it changes the deflection angle at which the control surface has zero moment.

  2. Next on the list is a tab with can be set by the pilot, but its angle relative to the control surface does not change with the deflection of the latter. In both cases, the effectiveness of the control surface is unchanged.

  3. More complex tabs do change their angle with control surface deflection. Flettner or servo tabs move opposite to the deflection of the main control surface and greatly reduce the hinge moment, at the cost of a small reduction in control power (think 90% force reduction for a loss of 20% in control power). On small airplanes you might even find tabs which increase the control force by being geared in the opposite way.

    Flettner tab

    Flettner tab (picture source)

  4. But it gets even more interesting with spring tabs: Here the gearing changes with tab hinge moment, so at high dynamic pressure the gearing is higher and control forces do not grow with the square of speed any more. Of course, more force reduction means less control power, but without such a device the control forces would be too high for effective control.

    spring tab

    Spring tab, picture from this answer.

Spring tabs need careful design: Their feedback might cause flutter at specific speeds. Also, the reduction of control power from tab deflection can be as high as two thirds of the control power of the original control surface, but they could reduce the control forces down to 4% or even 2%. They were the last resort before the introduction of hydraulic controls to make large, fast airplanes controllable at high speed. Due to their high effectiveness, they require high precision in manufacturing and careful adjustment in flight testing. The Junkers Ju-88 used a combination of tabs, overhanging balance and adjustable hinge position for very light aileron forces even at 500 km/h, but each airplane required several flight hours of testing and adjustment before delivery.

how does the use of this tab differ from making the whole elevator smaller?

A size reduction will reduce control power and forces in equal measure while a well-designed tab will cost between 10% and 70% in effectivity for a force reduction of up to 98%.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for answering all parts of my question! The flettner/servo tab was what I had in mind when asking. I'm familiar with the systems on Pipers and Cessnas. One follow-up: Why is it hard to find examples of aircraft whose servo tabs but not the main control surface are linked to the flight controls? It seems like a good idea, but of course I'm no expert... $\endgroup$
    – Edb240
    Aug 14, 2021 at 14:59
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    $\begingroup$ The NASA article explaining the spring tab also mentions the whirleron(!), a normally windmilling small prop aft of the wing, whose blade angle is set by the pilot. Then its spinning applies force to the aileron. Wow. $\endgroup$ Aug 14, 2021 at 15:04
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    $\begingroup$ @Edb240 Large airplanes used to have directly linked servo tabs before hydraulic controls were common. Examples are the Do-X where the servo tabs were above the control surfaces or the Bristol Britannia. This is prone to flutter, however, so faster jets quickly moved to hydraulic actuation. $\endgroup$ Aug 14, 2021 at 16:07
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    $\begingroup$ "Why is it hard to find examples of aircraft whose servo tabs but not the main control surface are linked to the flight controls?" - All [McDonnell] Douglas aircraft from the DC-4 through DC-9 (except the MD-90) are examples of such, so I wouldn't exactly call examples of such "hard to find"... $\endgroup$
    – Vikki
    Aug 15, 2021 at 1:27
  • $\begingroup$ Ok, good to know. I only meant "hard to find" in the sense that most articles don't mention specific aircraft – they just explain the concept in the most general of terms – which is why I asked on this site. Thanks $\endgroup$
    – Edb240
    Aug 15, 2021 at 19:32
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PHAK chapter 6 shows a trim tab, and the linked discussion about Ameristar describes a servo tab. From this answer:

The servo tab is an aerodynamic lever, it is connected directly to the pilot flying controls.

The trim tab has a constant angle relative to the control surface.

  • The trim tab is the easy one: it changes only the offset force required to keep the aircraft in trim. Instead of aerodynamics pushing the control one way and the pilot balancing by pulling the other way, the trim tab is positioned so that at trimmed flight there is no aerodynamic force attempting to pull the control surface away.

from the wiki page

  • The control tab (also called servo tab or Flettner tab) is for reducing aerodynamic feedback forces, while not reducing elevator surface area. The aeroplane requires a minimum elevator surface area for control in all circumstances. Where does the force go - same as with any lever, reduce forces by increasing moment arm.
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The tab you’re talking about is more commonly known as a “trim tab”. I encourage you to go through your preflight checklist where you’ll explicitly check whether the elevator trim tab is secure (for a Cessna at least).

It’s literally a tab on trailing edge of the elevator. The tab can be extended forward and backward, effectively changing the total downforce of the elevator. The change in downforce changes the amount of force the pilot has to provide on the yoke (extending the tab downward (trim up) increases the downforce and thereby requires less backpressure on the yoke).

Some other planes (eg Cirrus) don’t have such tabs. Instead, the trim is changed digitally and affects the force of servo motors that are attached to the elevator/rudder controls (the same motors that control the auto pilot). The extra force provided by these motors effectively changes the force the pilot has to input.

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