Proficient Pilot

High versus low

August 1, 2011

Barry SchiffMy friend, Hal Fishman, and I used to have an ongoing and vigorous disagreement about which was best, high- or low-wing airplanes, a subject that has been hotly debated since before the 1903 Wright Flyer. Tongue-in-cheek historians claim that Orville and Wilbur’s biplane was a compromise; its main disadvantage was having twice as many leading edges from which to remove bugs.

There has been little to resolve this classic debate. Pilots vehemently defend both wing configurations, their views seemingly dependent on the types of airplanes in which they learned to fly. (Hal soloed in a Piper Cherokee, and I was baptized in an Aeronca Champion.) There obviously are pros and cons for each configuration.

For example, high wings provide shelter when crawling in and out of the cockpit on rainy days. They also shade us from the sun, reduce greenhouse heating in the summer, and are convenient for under-wing camping.

Low-wing proponents argue that they don’t have to go mountain climbing to visually check their fuel supply and that it is easier for them to detect fuel leaking from an improperly secured or missing fuel cap.

High-wing advocates quickly reply that they don’t have to crawl on their bellies to drain fuel samples. They also are comforted by the reliability of gravity feed and a fuel system less dependent on mechanical and electric fuel pumps.

Those preferring low wings counter that their airplanes are easier to wash without washing themselves in the process. They fail to mention having to wash the undersides of these wings. More seriously, they remind us that it is easier to remove ground frost from low wings.

Most agree that it generally is easier to get in and out of high-wing airplanes (and without having to step on clean upholstery). Conversely, high-wing pilots and their passengers are sometimes recognizable by the flap gash across their foreheads. They also risk tripping over a gear leg or being impaled by a pitot tube.

It is, of course, easier to inspect the landing gear and tires of a high-wing airplane both on the ground and in the air. On the other hand, watching the retractable gear of a high-wing Cessna going through its praying-mantis contortion convinces many that such airplanes should not have retractable gear. Low wings do offer a better place to stow the wheels.

If one must suffer the indignity of a gear-up landing, this probably is best done in a low-wing airplane because it is less likely to tip and drag a wingtip during touchdown and rollout. After the aircraft comes to a screeching halt, the intrepid pilot can step from the cabin and walk across the wing with dignity and aplomb while implying that he handled a difficult situation with great skill. The hapless high-wing pilot faced with the same predicament might have to exit in a squat and waddle ignominiously from under the wing.

It is typically easier to make normal landings in low-wing airplanes. The relatively low centers of gravity and main wheels that usually are farther apart combine to improve tractability. Wings closer to the ground benefit from increased ground effect (and less induced drag during takeoff and landing).

Landing in a stiff crosswind that requires relatively steep bank (slip) angles, however, is usually more comfortable in high-wing airplanes.

High-wings reign supreme when taxiing because they provide greater clearance over ground obstacles and are less susceptible to gravel damage. This is why they are so highly favored by bush pilots. High wings make for the best seaplanes, too, because they can clear a dock while low wings often cannot. High-wing airplanes are easier to tie down but more susceptible to being blown about by blustery winds.

No one can dispute that high wings offer a superior view of the ground for improved sightseeing and visual navigation. They are the wings of choice for search-and-rescue operations, aerial mapping, pipeline patrol, fish spotting, surveying, and so forth.

On the other hand, high wings are not so great when maneuvering in the traffic pattern. When turning, a lowered high wing can block a pilot’s view of the airport and other traffic. However, this is not as much of a problem as many believe.

Although the lowered wing does interfere with the view to the side, this is not where the airplane is going. When turning, an airplane tracks along an arc that leads off the nose. In other words, it moves more ahead than to the side, and traffic conflicts usually can be avoided by simply watching where one is going. (Watch out, though, about turning into parallel traffic.)

Overall visibility from a low-wing airplane usually is better than a high-wing airplane. This is because a pilot’s eyes are farther above a low wing than they are below a high wing. Low wings generally block less of the overall view.

There is an endless storm of pros and cons regarding wing placement. Although pilots likely will never reach consensus, passengers seem to favor low wings because they feel more secure sitting on top of something substantial than being suspended beneath it.

My friend Hal used to punctuate the end of his argument in favor of low wings—he owned a B-36TC Bonanza—by asking, “Have you ever seen a high-wing fighter?” I would reply smugly, “No, but nor have I ever seen a low-wing bird.”

Barry Schiff began teaching ground school in 1955 while still in high school. Visit the author’s website.