The Vertical Stabilizer

Aircraft · 4 min read · Apr 20, 2022
vertical stabilizer

You’ve probably already noticed that planes have a vertical tail on the back, but what is a vertical stabilizer? A vertical stabilizer is a part of an airplane that, true to its name, stabilizes and balances the aircraft on a vertical axis.

The vertical fin derives its purpose from the plane’s rudder, which steers the aircraft to the left and right sides. In addition, it helps keep the wings level during flight and provides the proper orientation for landing. This allows the plane to fly consistently on indirect paths and contributes to the aircraft’s maneuverability.

Types of vertical stabilizers

Vertical stabilizers come in various types, typically differentiated by their use, movements, and mounting capabilities.

There are four different types of vertical stabilizers:

1. The Conventional Tail

A conventional vertical stabilizer is the most common kind of vertical stabilizer. It is found on many airplanes and has a perpendicular fin to the plane’s body and a rudder that prevents the airplane from rolling sideways.

The conventional vertical stabilizer helps keep the airplane in control, especially when it comes to side-to-side movement. It also allows for better maneuverability during flights.

One drawback of the conventional vertical stabilizer is that it has a large profile which can cause drag, making it less fuel-efficient. This type of stabilizer also requires more maintenance than other types of stabilizers.

A conventional empennage of a Boeing.
Image source: Dtom

2. The T-Tail

The “T-tail” is a vertical stabilizer characterized by the horizontal bar that juts out from the plane’s fuselage, with it on top. The tail section resembles a capital T from certain angles.

This type of tail design dates back to the 1930s when it was first used on an experimental aircraft by Messerschmitt’s German company. 

The advantages of a T-tail include its reduced drag and increased stability while in flight. However, safety concerns offset these benefits—many experts argue that this design makes it more difficult to land safely during turbulent weather conditions.

An aircraft with a T-tail type empennage.
Image source: Adrian Pingstone

3. The Cruciform Tail

The cruciform tail is a vertical stabilizer configuration that has four surfaces, or fins, arranged in a cross shape. It’s designed so that the aircraft’s stability can be maintained without having to be as large as a conventional tail. The vertical stabilizer is the part of the airplane you can see on the back that looks like a fin.

In addition to making planes lighter and more aerodynamic, cruciform tails are also more structurally sound than other stabilizers (which means they can take more damage before failing). They’re often used on high-speed aircraft that need to keep their weight down for optimal performance.

Cruciform tails have disadvantages: They are less effective than conventional ones at slower speeds. Also, it does have a relatively low moment arm, which means it may require larger control surfaces for the same amount of stability.

A small aircraft with a cruciform tail.
Image source: Yummifruitbat

4. The H-Tail

The H-tail is located at the back of the plane and has an aerofoil section just like the wings. This horizontal stabilizer is called an “H-tail” because it has two vertical fins on either side, making it look like the letter “H”

The main advantage of using an H-tail vertical stabilizer is that the pilot can use the horizontal tail surfaces to change the angle of attack, allowing the aircraft to fly slower without stalling.

One example of an aircraft that uses an H-tail vertical stabilizer is the Antonov 225 Mriya.

Antonov 225 Mriya's H-tail.
Image source: Kārlis Dambrāns

Can a plane fly without a vertical stabilizer?

The vertical stabilizer is a critical part of an airplane. Without it, the plane would be much harder to control and would have a tendency to roll over (or “yaw”).

The stabilizer is used for balance. When an airplane flies at high speeds, it tends to tilt to one side. The vertical stabilizer corrects this movement by creating aerodynamic resistance that keeps the airplane level.

So why doesn’t every airplane have one? Well, they do.  But some kinds of airplanes are designed so that they’re aerodynamically stable—they don’t need the vertical stabilizer to keep flying straight and level.

However, as flights have become more advanced and other aircraft have been redesigned with sleeker and more aerodynamic effects, there have been more reasons to question whether or not an airplane can fly with it.

For example, many delta wing airplanes are stable enough on their own that they don’t need a vertical stabilizer. For instance the American Bomber, Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit.

Accidents associated with vertical stabilizers

It turns out that when a plane’s vertical stabilizer fails, it often results in a fatal crash. Such an outcome has occurred in several air crashes throughout history, including:

  • The crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123 in 1985
  • The crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in 2001
  • The crash of Helios Airways Flight 522 in 2005

What is another name for a vertical stabilizer?

The vertical stabilizer, also known as the “tail fin” or “vertical fin” is the most notable part of an airplane’s tail assembly.

Is the rudder a vertical stabilizer?

The rudder is a movable flap that’s mounted at the back of the vertical stabilizer—the topmost piece of a plane’s tail. It turns left and right to help control which direction a plane moves in horizontally.

What does a horizontal stabilizer do?

The horizontal stabilizer is part of the empennage, or tail section, of an airplane. It controls the pitch or angle between the nose and tail of the aircraft.

When a pilot wants to move the nose up or down, they use a control called an elevator that is attached to the rear edge of the horizontal stabilizer. Horizontal stabilizers increase aircraft stability and help with landing by creating a downward force on the tail of the plane.

Horizontal stabilizers are used to control the pitch of the aircraft and directional stability, so if you’re flying a plane without a horizontal stabilizer, you will not be able to control the aircraft when you’re trying to climb or descend.

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Aeroclass Team
A team of professionals with a deep passion for the aviation industry bringing you the newest and the most striking industry-related news and content.

2 comments

  1. Eglė Bartaševičiūtė says:

    Hi Frank,

    thanks for pointing out the error!

    Best wishes,
    Aeroclass Team

  2. Frank Vargas says:

    Article states “The rudder is a movable flap that’s mounted at the back of the horizontal stabilizer”…it should be “vertical stabilizer”.

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