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How does flying a biplane differ from flying a monoplane? Apart from the increased drag and lift, how does it handle differently, and what effect does that have on manoeuvring?

In particular, I'm interested in differences between a biplane and a hypothetical equivalent monoplane, not differences between vintage airplanes and modern ones, or differences between aerobatic and utility airplanes.

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    $\begingroup$ There are a lot of opinion-based answers and answers copied from other sources, but very little actual evidence. In some ways, this question is meaningless, unless someone can come up with two actual airplanes that have the same engine and airframe, but with different wings. $\endgroup$ – rbp Dec 4 '14 at 19:38
  • $\begingroup$ I thought the design choice between a biplane and single wing was a matter of wing area, and early plane designers used box designs because of the weight advantage over a long, heavy strong spar. $\endgroup$ – rbp Dec 4 '14 at 19:42
  • $\begingroup$ @rbp The answers tend to focus on design decisions, but I was thinking more from a pilot's point of view. When I fly my biplane, what am I doing differently from just a slow, old monoplane? $\endgroup$ – Dan Hulme Dec 4 '14 at 20:33
  • $\begingroup$ having flown both, the real answer is not much. you'll find a bigger difference between the gear styles, tailwheel and tricycle, than between a single wing and a biplane. $\endgroup$ – rbp Dec 4 '14 at 22:35
  • $\begingroup$ Better visibility with a monoplane. $\endgroup$ – Tony Ennis Dec 8 '14 at 22:09
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Short answer:

For clarification: Equivalence between biplane and monoplane means than both have the same wing area and the same engine. Then the main differences in maneuvering are:

  • The biplane has better roll acceleration than an equivalent monoplane.
  • The biplane has a higher roll rate than an equivalent monoplane at the same speeds.
  • All biplane flying takes place at lower speeds, resulting in a lower space requirement for all maneuvers. This also means that inertial effects are less pronounced: When pulling up, there is less kinetic energy available for climbing, so (for example) hammerhead turns will end with less altitude gain.

Differences in handling: The biplane has

  • lower aileron forces for the same roll rate at the same speed
  • lighter control forces overall due to lower flight speed

Differences in performance:

  • shorter take-off and landing distances
  • a lower stall speed
  • a much lower maximum speed
  • a lower optimum cruise speed and range
  • a lower power requirement due to the lower flying speeds, or if both use the same engine, a better power-to-weight ratio

when compared to an equivalent monoplane. These differences are most pronounced if the airplane carries just the pilot and not much payload.

Flying techniques are the same as for monoplanes. Indirectly, differences are likely due to differences in design. Example: Few biplanes profit from having a retractable landing gear while gear retraction makes sense for monoplanes with higher power loading (installed power relative to wing area).

Explanation

Biplanes have two major differences:

  • Smaller wing span at the same wing area, and
  • Wire bracing results in very lightweight biplane wings.

The smaller span reduces roll damping and roll inertia, so a biplane will accelerate into a roll more quickly than an equivalent monoplane and will reach a higher roll rate. This is the main difference in maneuvering.

The smaller wing span results in more induced drag if both have the same mass and the same speed. With wire bracing, this condition is unrealistic, and an equivalent biplane will be much lighter. If the structure is a substantial part of the aircraft's mass (this is typical for aerobatic airplanes), the result can easily be less induced drag, despite the lower span, and also lower wing loading. This in turn means that both fly at different speeds: The biplane will be able to fly much slower, but the aerodynamic drag of the bracing will restrict it to low speeds. This also means inertial effects are less pronounced: The lower mass and lower speed of the biplane combine for a marked difference to the equivalent monoplane.

For aerobatic displays this is ideal: All action takes place close to the audience, and the biplane will need a much smaller area for all maneuvers than an equivalent, but heavier monoplane. The downside are low maximum speed and low range.

Another difference in performance are much shorter take-off and landing distances due to the lower wing loading, which results in a lower stall speed. The optimum endurance and optimum range speeds are lower than those of an equivalent monoplane as well, so all biplane flying happens at lower speeds, which is beneficial for training aircraft.

Since control forces are proportional to dynamic pressure, a biplane will have lower control forces than an equivalent monoplane. Here equivalence also means that the relative chord of all control surfaces is the same. In reality, a good designer will select a higher relative chord for the biplane's control surfaces to ensure that control forces are above their required minimum.

The heavy, unreliable engines of the early years made biplanes the ideal way of taking to the air. Once engines became more powerful and allowed higher payloads, the monoplane became better suited to carrying passengers and freight at higher speeds and over longer distances.

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  • $\begingroup$ how much of these advantages can be attributed to the lighter weight of biplanes versus single-wing airplanes, for the same wing area? aside from the box kite construction, most biplanes have fabric wings, versus metal skin and wood or metal spars of single-wing planes, making them much lighter. $\endgroup$ – rbp Dec 5 '14 at 13:00
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    $\begingroup$ @rbp: Equivalence means that both should use the same materials and processes. With the lower dynamic pressure of biplanes, they have less problem with flutter and gust loads, so it is possible to build them of wood and fabric. Now both are not equivalent anymore, like with the gear retractability I used as an example. Optimizing each will mean to lose the basis for a fair comparison. When optimized designs are compared, the biplane will leverage the lightweight wing design to also save weight in all other parts. In the end, all this is really a consequence of the box kite construction. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Dec 5 '14 at 13:31
  • $\begingroup$ "the lower dynamic pressure of biplanes, they have less problem with flutter and gust loads" can you improve the answer to cite a reference? or maybe explain better why? $\endgroup$ – rbp Dec 5 '14 at 14:14
  • $\begingroup$ @rbp: Both speed and dynamic pressure are factors in flutter. The speed determines the frequency of aerodynamic oscillations, and the dynamic pressure determines how much energy is involved. Oscillations must not have similar frequencies than structural eigenmodes to avoid flutter, and a lower speed means less structural stiffness is needed to ensure this. Gust loads are again proportional to both, and higher flight speed produces steeper gradients of force changes, and the force change itself is proportional to dynamic pressure. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Dec 6 '14 at 8:34
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    $\begingroup$ @BrianDrummond: This helps a lot and makes the single wing structurally very similar to one biplane wing. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Feb 25 '18 at 17:31
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In a nutshell, the advantages and disadvantages are:

Advantages

  • Biplanes (or triplanes) can usually lift up to 20% more than can a similarly sized monoplane of similar wingspan. A biplane will therefore typically have a shorter wingspan than the equivalent monoplane, which tends to afford greater maneuverability.
  • The struts and wire bracing of a typical biplane form a box girder. Particularly when divided into bays, this permits a very light but strong and rigid wing structure. This allows a biplane to fly with very little power...

Disadvantages

  • Each wing negatively interferes with the aerodynamics of the other, requiring greater overall surface area to produce the same lift as the equivalent monoplane.
  • A biplane typically also produces more drag than a monoplane, especially as speed increases.

Comparison

Technological Advancements

In early days (1900-1930s), the biggest advantage of biplanes was having twice the surface area and a rigid structure to support the wings. But at present, high strength carbon fiber reinforced plastics made it possible to build very high aspect ratio wings without any (or little) external support. With the advent of steel, then aluminum air frames, the previous considerations were mute, and monoplanes have become more common than biplanes.


NASA has a historical discussion about these.

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    $\begingroup$ What do you mean by the second advantage point? How does the box girder structure affect power (beyond increasing it because it has higher drag)? $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Dec 3 '14 at 19:12
  • $\begingroup$ @JanHudec I didn't paste the entire explanation from Wikipedia but have done it now. If you think it still doesn't fully clarifies the point, please let me know and I'll update it. $\endgroup$ – Farhan Dec 3 '14 at 19:27
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    $\begingroup$ It doesn't. Because it doesn't make sense on Wikipedia either. The box girder allows building it from weaker material. But it has larger drag, and therefore requires more engine power, at all speeds. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Dec 3 '14 at 19:30
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    $\begingroup$ @PeterKämpf : indeed, so slowly that an Antonov 2 reportedly doesn't have an official stall speed. If you fly slow enough, you'll just descend with it like with a parachute. $\endgroup$ – vsz Dec 3 '14 at 21:18
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    $\begingroup$ @JanHudec: Induced drag is also proportional to lift, and a lighter airplane requires less of it. Again, a small speed difference will already make a big difference in power. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Dec 5 '14 at 23:01
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Biplanes handle like bricks. They lose altitude more quickly at low speed, and they are much easier to stall. They have more drag and will enter a spin more readily. They are much more susceptible to cross winds than monoplanes and therefore can only take off and land in relatively moderate conditions, since they will flip over easily.

The advantage they have is that they can turn much more quickly than a monoplane, so they are nowadays mainly used for acrobatics, like Pitts Specials.

During the war pilots flying Fairey Swordfishes and Fireflies were in great danger from the much faster Bf109s. They would escape by plummeting to the ocean in a virtual free fall then pulling out at the last moment. Any Messerschmidt pilot dumb enough to follow them in this maneover would be flying their last mission.

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There is no principial difference in handling. Both have the same set of control surfaces and stability is achieved using the same methods, so the piloting techniques are the same. There will usually be difference in performance. Biplanes loose speed faster, but are slightly more manoeuvrable.

The main advantage of biplane is that it can be built with less strong materials, because the wings are shorter and the box girder bracing structure distributes the loads very well. This often meant lower weight which offset the increased drag.

The main disadvantage of biplane is that shorter wingspan means lower aspect ratio and therefore higher induced drag, which dominates at low speed, and the larger frontal area and surface area (interference between the wings means they are less efficient than they would be independently) mean higher form drag, which dominates at high speed. So a biplane needs a stronger engine for the same weight and will not glide as far should the engine fail.

Before cantilever (without bracing) wings were developed, the bracing didn't allow monoplanes to achieve that much lower drag and their higher weight cancelled the little aerodynamic advantage they had, so biplanes dominated. With cantilever wings the aerodynamic advantage of monoplanes became more important and biplanes almost disappeared.

A few aerobatic biplanes (like the famous Pitts SC1) remained, most likely because with shorter wingspan they have lower moment of inertia in roll and therefore roll slightly more easily.

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Biplanes have typically higher wing areas for the same sized aircraft. I remember I biplane that I took a ride in crashed not on hour later because on short final he caught a wind gust and ended up upside down on the runway!

(Everyone was okay, but you never forget the tin can hanging off a bike sound of an airplane crash.)

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    $\begingroup$ During WWI, the Fokker Triplane was really maneuverable. <acepilots.com/wwi/fokker_triplane.html> "Undoubtedly the most famous fighter of World War 1, the Fokker Dr I was a revelation when it entered service on the western front in 1917. Manfred von Richthofen’s JG 1 was the first Jasta to completely re-equip with the new fighter, and in the skilled hands of its numerous aces the Dr I proved a formidable opponent. The Dr I remained in service on the Western Front until replaced by the superior Fokker D VII in May 1918. ... $\endgroup$ – CrossRoads Apr 3 '18 at 19:21
  • $\begingroup$ Just weeks prior to that, however, Germany’s leading ace, the great ‘Red Baron’, had been killed at the controls of a Dr I. The revolutionary triplane design adopted by Fokker was inspired by the equally successful Sopwith’s Triplane, and although built in remarkably small numbers, the Fokker Triplane legend has made it the best known aircraft to emerge from World War 1." $\endgroup$ – CrossRoads Apr 3 '18 at 19:22
  • $\begingroup$ Ooh, and the British had a Triplane too. Also very effective it seems, altho not as well known as the Fokker Triplane <thevintageaviator.co.nz/projects/sopwith-triplane/…> Picture <thevintageaviator.co.nz/sites/default/files/styles/…> $\endgroup$ – CrossRoads Apr 3 '18 at 19:26
  • $\begingroup$ Fokker Triplane picture <plane-encyclopedia.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/…> Arrgh, link won't work ... But if pasted into a browser it will ... $\endgroup$ – CrossRoads Apr 3 '18 at 19:32

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