Air brake (aeronautics)

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Air brakes on the rear fuselage of a Eurowings BAe 146-300 Eurowings bae146-300 d-aewb arp.jpg
Air brakes on the rear fuselage of a Eurowings BAe 146-300
A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon showing its split speed brakes inboard of the stabilators or "tailerons" 416th FLTS F-16 at Red Flag 12-2.jpg
A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon showing its split speed brakes inboard of the stabilators or "tailerons"
An F-15 landing with its large dorsal air brake panel deployed F-15 Eagle landing with the speed brake up.jpg
An F-15 landing with its large dorsal air brake panel deployed
Extended DFS type air brakes on a Slingsby Capstan Airbrakes on Capstan.jpg
Extended DFS type air brakes on a Slingsby Capstan

In aeronautics, air brakes or speed brakes are a type of flight control surface used on an aircraft to increase the drag on the aircraft. Air brakes differ from spoilers in that air brakes are designed to increase drag while making little change to lift, whereas spoilers reduce the lift-to-drag ratio and require a higher angle of attack to maintain lift, resulting in a higher stall speed. [1]



An air brake is a part of an aircraft. When extended into the airstream it causes an increase in the drag on the aircraft. When not in use it conforms to the local streamlined profile of the aircraft in order to help minimise the drag. [2]


In the early decades of powered flight, air brakes were flaps mounted on the wings. They were manually controlled by a lever in the cockpit, and mechanical linkages to the air brake.

An early type of air brake, developed in 1931, was fitted to the aircraft wing support struts. [3]

In 1936, Hans Jacobs, who headed Nazi Germany's Deutsche Forschungsanstalt für Segelflug (DFS) glider research organization before World War II, developed blade-style self-operating dive brakes, on the upper and lower surface of each wing, for gliders. [4] Most early gliders were equipped with spoilers on the wings in order to adjust their angle of descent during approach to landing. More modern gliders use air brakes which may spoil lift as well as increase drag, dependent on where they are positioned.

A British report [5] written in 1942 discusses the need for airbrakes to enable dive bombers, torpedo bombers and fighter aircraft to meet their respective combat performance requirements and, more generally, glide-path control. It discusses different types of air brakes and their requirements, in particular that they should have no appreciable effect on lift or trim and how this may be achieved with split trailing edge flaps on the wings, for example. There was also a requirement to vent the brake surfaces using numerous perforations or slots to reduce airframe buffeting.

A US report [6] written in 1949 describes numerous air brake configurations, and their performance, on wings and fuselage for propeller and jet aircraft.

Airbrake configurations

Often, characteristics of both spoilers and air brakes are desirable and are combined - most modern airliner jets feature combined spoiler and air brake controls. On landing, the deployment of these spoilers ("lift dumpers") causes a significant reduction in wing lift so the weight of the aircraft is transferred from the wings to the undercarriage. The increased weight increases the available friction force for braking. In addition, the form drag created by the spoilers directly assists the braking effect. Reverse thrust is also used to help slow the aircraft after landing. [7]

A Fokker 70 of KLM landing with speed brakes deployed. Klm.fokker70.airbrakes.arp.750pix.jpg
A Fokker 70 of KLM landing with speed brakes deployed.

Virtually all jet-powered aircraft have an air brake or, in the case of most airliners, lift spoilers that also act as air brakes. Propeller-driven aircraft benefit from the natural braking effect of the propeller when engine power is reduced to idle, but jet engines have no similar braking effect so jet-powered aircraft must use air brakes to control speed and descent angle during landing approach. Many early jets used parachutes as air brakes on approach (Arado Ar 234, Boeing B-47) or after landing (English Electric Lightning).

Split-tailcone airbrakes have been used on the Blackburn Buccaneer naval strike aircraft designed in the 1950s and Fokker F28 Fellowship and British Aerospace 146 airliners. The Buccaneer airbrake, when opened, reduced the length of the aircraft in the confined space on an aircraft carrier.

The F-15 Eagle, Sukhoi Su-27, F-18 Hornet and other fighters have an air brake located just behind the cockpit.

Split control surfaces

Space Shuttle Discovery on landing, showing its rudder deployed in speed brake mode STS-116 landing port behind.jpg
Space Shuttle Discovery on landing, showing its rudder deployed in speed brake mode

The deceleron is an aileron that functions normally in flight but can split in half such that the top half goes up as the bottom half goes down to brake. This technique was first used on the F-89 Scorpion and has since been used by Northrop on several aircraft, including the B-2 Spirit.

The Space Shuttle used a similar system. The vertically-split rudder opened in "clamshell" fashion on landing to act as a speed brake. [8]

See also

Related Research Articles

Aircraft Vehicle or machine that is able to fly by gaining support from the air

An aircraft is a vehicle or machine that is able to fly by gaining support from the air. It counters the force of gravity by using either static lift or by using the dynamic lift of an airfoil, or in a few cases the downward thrust from jet engines. Common examples of aircraft include airplanes, helicopters, airships, gliders, paramotors, and hot air balloons.

Wing Surface used for flight, for example by insects, birds, bats and airplanes

A wing is a type of fin that produces lift while moving through air or some other fluid. Accordingly, wings have streamlined cross-sections that are subject to aerodynamic forces and act as airfoils. A wing's aerodynamic efficiency is expressed as its lift-to-drag ratio. The lift a wing generates at a given speed and angle of attack can be one to two orders of magnitude greater than the total drag on the wing. A high lift-to-drag ratio requires a significantly smaller thrust to propel the wings through the air at sufficient lift.

Fixed-wing aircraft Heavier-than-air aircraft with fixed wings generating aerodynamic lift

A fixed-wing aircraft is a heavier-than-air flying machine, such as an airplane, which is capable of flight using wings that generate lift caused by the aircraft's forward airspeed and the shape of the wings. Fixed-wing aircraft are distinct from rotary-wing aircraft, and ornithopters. The wings of a fixed-wing aircraft are not necessarily rigid; kites, hang gliders, variable-sweep wing aircraft and airplanes that use wing morphing are all examples of fixed-wing aircraft.

Stall (fluid dynamics) Abrupt reduction in lift due to flow separation

In fluid dynamics, a stall is a reduction in the lift coefficient generated by a foil as angle of attack increases. This occurs when the critical angle of attack of the foil is exceeded. The critical angle of attack is typically about 15°, but it may vary significantly depending on the fluid, foil, and Reynolds number.

Flight Process by which an object moves, through an atmosphere or beyond it

Flight or flying is the process by which an object moves through a space without contacting any planetary surface, either within an atmosphere or through the vacuum of outer space. This can be achieved by generating aerodynamic lift associated with gliding or propulsive thrust, aerostatically using buoyancy, or by ballistic movement.

Flying wing Tailless fixed-wing aircraft that has no definite fuselage

A flying wing is a tailless fixed-wing aircraft that has no definite fuselage, with its crew, payload, fuel, and equipment housed inside the main wing structure. A flying wing may have various small protuberances such as pods, nacelles, blisters, booms, or vertical stabilizers.

Landing Transition from being in flight to being on a surface

Landing is the last part of a flight, where a flying animal, aircraft, or spacecraft returns to the ground. When the flying object returns to water, the process is called alighting, although it is commonly called "landing", "touchdown" or "splashdown" as well. A normal aircraft flight would include several parts of flight including taxi, takeoff, climb, cruise, descent and landing.

Swept wing Plane wing that angles backwards or forwards

A swept wing is a wing that angles either backward or occasionally forward from its root rather than in a straight sideways direction.

Wingtip device Aircraft component fixed to the end of the wings to improve performance

Wingtip devices are intended to improve the efficiency of fixed-wing aircraft by reducing drag. Although there are several types of wing tip devices which function in different manners, their intended effect is always to reduce an aircraft's drag by partial recovery of the tip vortex energy. Wingtip devices can also improve aircraft handling characteristics and enhance safety for following aircraft. Such devices increase the effective aspect ratio of a wing without greatly increasing the wingspan. Extending the span would lower lift-induced drag, but would increase parasitic drag and would require boosting the strength and weight of the wing. At some point, there is no net benefit from further increased span. There may also be operational considerations that limit the allowable wingspan.

Flight control surfaces Surface that allows a pilot to adjust and control an aircrafts flight attitude

Aircraft flight control surfaces are aerodynamic devices allowing a pilot to adjust and control the aircraft's flight attitude.

Thrust reversal Temporary diversion of an aircraft engines thrust

Thrust reversal, also called reverse thrust, is the temporary diversion of an aircraft engine's thrust for it to act against the forward travel of the aircraft, providing deceleration. Thrust reverser systems are featured on many jet aircraft to help slow down just after touch-down, reducing wear on the brakes and enabling shorter landing distances. Such devices affect the aircraft significantly and are considered important for safe operations by airlines. There have been accidents involving thrust reversal systems, including fatal ones.

Spoiler (aeronautics) Device for reducing lift and increasing drag on aircraft wings

In aeronautics, a spoiler is a device which intentionally reduces the lift component of an airfoil in a controlled way. Most often, spoilers are plates on the top surface of a wing that can be extended upward into the airflow to spoil the streamline flow. By so doing, the spoiler creates a controlled stall over the portion of the wing behind it, greatly reducing the lift of that wing section. Spoilers differ from airbrakes in that airbrakes are designed to increase drag without affecting lift, while spoilers reduce lift as well as increasing drag.

Slip (aerodynamics) Aerobatic maneuver

A slip is an aerodynamic state where an aircraft is moving somewhat sideways as well as forward relative to the oncoming airflow or relative wind. In other words, for a conventional aircraft, the nose will be pointing in the opposite direction to the bank of the wing(s). The aircraft is not in coordinated flight and therefore is flying inefficiently.

Flap (aeronautics) Anti-stalling high-lift device on aircraft

A flap is a high-lift device used to reduce the stalling speed of an aircraft wing at a given weight. Flaps are usually mounted on the wing trailing edges of a fixed-wing aircraft. Flaps are used to reduce the take-off distance and the landing distance. Flaps also cause an increase in drag so they are retracted when not needed.

Conventional landing gear Aircraft undercarriage

Conventional landing gear, or tailwheel-type landing gear, is an aircraft undercarriage consisting of two main wheels forward of the center of gravity and a small wheel or skid to support the tail. The term taildragger is also used, although some argue it should apply only to those aircraft with a tailskid rather than a wheel.

Airplane Powered, flying vehicle with wings

An airplane or aeroplane is a fixed-wing aircraft that is propelled forward by thrust from a jet engine, propeller, or rocket engine. Airplanes come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and wing configurations. The broad spectrum of uses for airplanes includes recreation, transportation of goods and people, military, and research. Worldwide, commercial aviation transports more than four billion passengers annually on airliners and transports more than 200 billion tonne-kilometers of cargo annually, which is less than 1% of the world's cargo movement. Most airplanes are flown by a pilot on board the aircraft, but some are designed to be remotely or computer-controlled such as drones.

Tailless aircraft

A tailless aircraft has no tail assembly and no other horizontal surface besides its main wing. The aerodynamic control and stabilisation functions in both pitch and roll are incorporated into the main wing. A tailless type may still have a conventional vertical fin and rudder.

Leading-edge slat Device increasing the lift of the wing at low speed (take-off and landing)

Slats are aerodynamic surfaces on the leading edge of the wings of fixed-wing aircraft which, when deployed, allow the wing to operate at a higher angle of attack. A higher coefficient of lift is produced as a result of angle of attack and speed, so by deploying slats an aircraft can fly at slower speeds, or take off and land in shorter distances. They are usually used while landing or performing maneuvers which take the aircraft close to a stall, but are usually retracted in normal flight to minimize drag. They decrease stall speed.

Glider (sailplane) Type of glider aircraft used in the sport of gliding

A glider or sailplane is a type of glider aircraft used in the leisure activity and sport of gliding. This unpowered aircraft can use naturally occurring currents of rising air in the atmosphere to gain altitude. Sailplanes are aerodynamically streamlined and so can fly a significant distance forward for a small decrease in altitude.

The drag curve or drag polar is the relationship between the drag on an aircraft and other variables, such as lift, the coefficient of lift, angle-of-attack or speed. It may be described by an equation or displayed as a graph. Drag may be expressed as actual drag or the coefficient of drag.


  1. "Speed brake". Britannica. Retrieved 28 December 2019.
  2. Aircraft Design, Kundu 2010, ISBN   978 0 521 88516 4, p.283
  3. "Air Brakes for Planes Greatly Reduce the Landing Speed". Popular Science . Vol. 122, no. 1. January 1933. p. 18.
  4. Reitsch, Hanna (April 1997) [1955]. The Sky My Kingdom: Memoirs of the Famous German WWII Test-Pilot (Greenhill Military Paperback). Stackpole Books. p. 108. ISBN   9781853672620.
  5. Davies, H.; Kirk, F. N. (June 1942). "A Résumé of Aerodynamic Data on Air Brakes" (PDF) (Technical Report). Ministry of Supply.
  6. Stephenson, Jack D. (September 1949). "The Effects of Aerodynamic Brakes Upon the Speed Characteristics of Airplanes" (PDF) (Technical Note). NACA.
  7. "Spoilers And Speedbrakes - SKYbrary Aviation Safety". Retrieved 2019-12-28.
  8. "Extract from NSTS Shuttle Reference Manual (1988): Space Shuttle Coordinate System – Vertical Tail". NASA . Retrieved 25 October 2012.

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