How does an Airplane Turn? Forces Working to Turn an Aircraft

The Airbus A380 in a fully coordinated right turn. Photo Credit: Simon

Turning an Aircraft

This is an image of an Airbus A380 turning to the right.

Following is an explanation (in sequence) of how the aircraft initiates and maintains the right turn you see here.

First of all, consider that the A380 is flying straight and level, with its wings generating the total force of lift perpendicular to the wings.

  1. The pilot intends to initiate a right turn. He/she does so by banking the plane to the right via the control column.
  2. The left aileron goes down and the right aileron goes up. The left wing is now creating more lift than the right wing, hence it moves upwards, resulting in the airplane rolling to the right.
  3. This action of the aircraft changes the aerodynamic product of the airplane wings.
  4. The total lift force produced by the wings of the A380 is now divided into horizontal and vertical components.
  5. The vertical component of lift helps support the weight of the aircraft by opposing gravity whereas, the horizontal component of lift pulls the A380 towards the right. This horizontal component of lift is a centripetal force pulling the aircraft into the turn.

This banked position is maintained via the auto-pilot or appropriate pressure on control column by the pilots, which allows the plane to maintain its turn to the right. However, the ailerons alone are not responsible for an efficient turn. Airplane rudders, the elevators, and even  thrust from the engines is vital to a successful turn. Precise coordination between all these four controls must be established during airplane turns.


Aviation Theory Centre. Aeroplane General Knowledge and Aerodynamics. (2004).

Federal Aviation Administration. Pilots Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge. (2008). Accessed March 15, 2012.

Federal Aviation Administration. Airplane Flying Handbook. (2004). Accessed March 15, 2012.

Oxford Aviation Services. Joint Aviation Authorities Airline Transport Pilot’s License Theoretical Knowledge Manual. (2001). Accessed March 15, 2012.

Click to Return to Page One: How Does an Airplane Turn?

© Copyright 2012 Junaid Ali, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Science
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  1. Robert Boeing says

    In a turn I think weight is more than lift produced because by the end of a turn your plane would slip and loose height,am I correct

    Instructor at high school

  2. Robert Karn says

    Thanks for this insight Captain.

    This is quite informative though incomplete. I tend to question about how the sideways force (centripetal force) pulling the aircraft towards the center of the circular path actually change the nose heading. From explanation, the flight path will change but not heading.

    The aircraft wings – where the lift forces are acting from – are ideally at the center of the aircraft longitudinal length. The resultant sideways lift or force will pull (or snatch) the whole aircraft out of original flight path into a new flight path Parallel to the initial flightpath (heading remaining constant). What forces the nose away from the flight path to a new heading in order for the turn to be fully achieved??

    Kindly reply.
    Am a student pilot

  3. Wortman says

    Re: How does an Airplane Turn? Forces Working to Turn an Aircraft

    While this note reflects the (nearly) universal story on airplane turning, it is suspect at best. One might ask why a sideways force does not just cause the airplane to accelerate sideways. No demonstration is provided that this is a “centripetal” force but once you accept that word, a circular turn is guaranteed by definition. The problem is that a sideways force alone produces no turning torque on the aircraft so its heading would not change although the flight path would. There must be some torque to produce a yaw in the desired direction but it is never provided. One suspects that the standard turning story is at least incomplete. The missing element is that the transverse acceleration will (shortly) produce a transverse component of velocity and the resulting relative wind at an angle to the nose will (via the yaw weathervaning stability) be moved in the direction of the turn due to resulting forces on the vertical stabiliizer and fuselage.

    Yes the standard story is somewhere between wrong and incomplete.

  4. John Austin says

    The text is misleading “when a pilot banks the wing, this force is then divided into vertical and horizontal component”. The bank causes the upward force to be redirected from the vertical towards the horizontal. There is only one force but it is usually represented mathematically as the sum of vertical and horizontal component vectors (when viewed from a given altitude). The horizontal component acts as a centripetal force generating the curved turning path of the aircraft as viewed from the vertical.

    This banking can range from very slight as in a turning airliner to extreme banking in which the aircraft becomes inverted as in air combat maneuvering.

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