You’ve seen the different aircraft configurations and you point out high wing vs low wing aircraft to your non-aviator friends. You may even have taken sides in the perennial high wing vs low wing debate, but how well-versed are you on their key differences? Have you had the privilege of flying both types? Do you ever wonder about the pros and cons of each plus what type of flights they are best suited for?
If your inquiring mind wants to learn more, you’re in luck. Today we’ll be exploring just those types of questions so we can give you a clearer, more detailed understanding of how wing configuration impacts aircraft performance and how you can use this knowledge to help you choose the perfect plane for your next flight.
Let’s kick things off by making sure we are all on the same page with our official definitions of each configuration.
What is a high wing aircraft?
High wing aircraft are aircraft whose wings are mounted above the fuselage. The wings on high wing aircraft tend to be relatively flat with little dihedral or anhedral.
The Cessna 172 is one of the most common high wing general aviation planes.
What is a low wing aircraft?
The wings on a low wing aircraft are mounted lower than halfway up the fuselage. Expect to see some dihedral (upward angling of the wing tips compared to the wing root) to improve lateral stability.
The Piper Cherokee is one of the most common low wing general aviation planes.
Which is better – a high wing or low wing plane?
Here’s a dirty little secret: no matter what anyone tells you, there is no universal answer to the question of whether a high wing or a low wing plane is better. If one configuration were clearly better than the other for all pilots and all flight scenarios, then surely the other configuration would disappear from the market, right? But it hasn’t, and this is because there are advantages and disadvantages to both configurations.
The best thing to do is for each pilot to weigh the pros and cons and if possible, get experience flying both types of aircraft, then decide which is the best fit for the type of flying that he or she does. If you aren’t able to get into the cockpit of both designs, do the next best thing and see how they handle in a simulator so you can get at least some type of hands on experience to supplement your theoretical research.
To get you started, we have compiled a list of the most commonly cited advantages and disadvantages of both high and low wing aircraft. This list will hit the key points to ponder and ensure you are prepared to hold your own at the next fly-in debate between high wing and low wing proponents.
Before jumping into the list, we will touch on a few of the structural differences that result from varying the location of the aircraft wings.
How do wing design and wing placement affect aircraft flight characteristics?
As you may expect, aside from affecting the aircraft design, the placement of the wings also makes an impact on the resulting flight characteristics of the aircraft.
There are several factors which come into play, and we will use two common aircraft – the Cessna 172 and the Piper Cherokee – for our examples as we explore these concepts.
Stability is determined by the relative locations of two components: the center of mass and the center of lift. The center of mass is the balance point of the aircraft and is where the mass is concentrated. The center of lift is where all the lifting forces on the aircraft are concentrated.
The center of mass is beneath the center of lift in a high wing aircraft like the Cessna 172, thus causing it to be more inherently stable as compared to a low wing aircraft whose center of lift is below the center of mass.
To improve the stability of low wing aircraft like the Piper Cherokee, designers compensate by angling the wing tips upward. This upward angle is referred to as dihedral and it is a hallmark of low wing aircraft. By adding dihedral to a low wing aircraft, designers make it virtually as stable as a high wing.
When it comes to handling, the dihedral means that you will need to use more aileron in a crosswind as compared to a flatter wing like the 172.
Wing support structures
On a high wing like the Cessna 172, the fuselage of the aircraft hangs from the wing spar. This weight combined with the weight of the engines and wing tank fuel means that designers must add a wing strut on each side to help support the weight. The overhead spar will either be completely on top of the fuselage where it creates drag or may come through the top of the cabin, reducing already precious head room and providing an unwelcome obstacle to bump your head on.
By contrast, on a low wing aircraft like the Cherokee, the fuselage rests on top of the wing spar and is supported by it. This means no wing struts are needed. The spar on low wing aircraft runs through the cargo area, dividing it in two.
It should also be noted that the landing gear and wings share the same spar on low wing aircraft while high wing have a spar for the wings and a separate spar for the landing gear. That adds to the aircraft’s empty weight.
What are the advantages of high wing aircraft?
- Clear, unobstructed view of the ground
- More ground clearance for avoiding low obstacles
- The high wings block some of the sunlight from coming into the cockpit. This means welcome shade and cooler cockpit temperatures during hot summer days
- Shorter landing distance due to lessened impact of ground effect
- Gravity helps fuel flow from the tank to engine without the need for a fuel pump
- Inherently stable since the center of mass is situated below the center of lift
- Usable work and storage space under wings when plane is in a hangar
- Easier to get in and out of – no walking on the wings
- Wings provide protection from sun, rain and snow when loading/unloading and when sitting around the plane at airshows or fly-ins
- Easier to chock and un-chock main wheels
What are the disadvantages of high wing aircraft?
- During a rough landing, the fuselage takes the brunt of the force without the wings to help absorb the impact
- The raised fuel tank location means you will probably need to use a ladder during refueling
- Obstructed view on base to final turn
- Restricted visibility of aircraft above you
- Heavier weight due to the need for separate landing gear spars and wing spars.
- Longer and heavier landing gear with narrower and less stable track
- More sensitive to crosswind and turbulence on and near the ground
What are the advantages of low wing aircraft?
- Safer during emergency landings and gear up landings as wings will absorb some of the impact rather than all the force being concentrated on the fuselage as with a high wing aircraft
- In an emergency water landing, the low wings can float on the surface for several minutes. This allows time to evacuate.
- The fuel tank is easy to reach and fill from the ground
- Shortened takeoff distance thanks to enhanced ground effect
- Better overhead views of the sky
- Clear view on base to final turn
- May be lighter weight because the same spar is used for landing gear and wings
- Can accommodate a shorter, more widely spaced main gear which improves stability during taxiing (especially in high winds) and is less prone to structural failure
What are the disadvantages of low wing aircraft?
- The wing’s proximity to the ground means that you must be extra careful to avoid even low obstacles like tie-downs or taxiway lights that a high wing aircraft can just glide over.
- The wings block a pilot’s view of the ground
- It takes more effort to inspect the underside of the wings, so pilots are more likely to skip over this important part of the pre-flight check
- The wings can reflect sunlight back into the cockpit making it even hotter on a summer day
- Fuel pumps are needed to transport fuel from the tank to the engine since it is moving uphill
- Reduced rudder and elevator effectiveness since wing blocks airflow to tail during take-off, landing, and at high angle of attack (AoA)
What type of flights are high wing aircraft best for?
- Back country flights where high clearance is needed
- Flights with higher angle of attack (AoA)
- Sightseeing flights
- Photography flights
- Aerial reconnaissance
- Carrying cargo
What type of flights are low wing aircraft best for?
- Performance-based flying
- Flights where increased maneuverability is preferred
High wing vs Low wing Take-Aways
As with many debates, start this one up among a group of pilots and you will quickly see that there is no clear consensus on whether a high wing or low wing aircraft is superior. There are pilots on both sides of the spectrum who will only fly low wing or only fly high wing.
Given the pros and cons of each configuration, a moderate approach seems to make the most sense. Learn to fly both types of aircraft, understand their relative pros and cons, then choose your aircraft based on the type of flying you will be doing.
For some more in-depth information on how wing placement and design impact aircraft performance, set aside eighteen minutes to watch FLY8MA’s video explaining the practical differences in aircraft wings.
If you are renting your aircraft, that means you can fly a low wing one day and a high wing the next day. Looking to purchase a plane? Review the choices and decide which type of aircraft is the best fit for your personal preferences and the type of flying you most often do.
Either way, don’t stress too much about the decision. Many pilots say that the actual real-world differences in handling between high wing and low wing aircraft are so small that you will quickly adapt to whichever you choose, and you can easily transition between them with just bit of knowledge and skill.