What to look for?
When trying to identify an aircraft there are certain characteristics to look for. For example: is it an aircraft or a helicopter? Is it propelled by jet engines or propellers? Has it a high wing or a low wing? On this page the different elements are defined, including the forms they can appear. To help you the definitions of supported by drawings and photos.
Type of aircraft
On this website we consider three different types of aircraft
- Airplanes, with fixed wings providing the lift as the aircraft is propelled forward by thrust from jet engines, rocket engines and/or propellers. Some airplanes are considered tiltrotors or tiltwings, airplanes with propellers that can be rotated (or the whole wing) so that they become rotors providing lift for vertical flight.
- Helicopters and eVTOLs, a type of rotorcraft with one or more powered rotors lifting it to the air vertically and propelling it horizontally. Usually, they don't have wings or at least the wings are not the primary means for providing lift. Typically, helicopters have one or two rotors while eVTOLs can have many more.
- Autogiros, a type of rotorcraft that uses an unpowered rotor to develop lift. Forward motion is needed to make the rotor spin, typically provided by an engine-driven propeller.
There are four different ways of characterising the wing configuration:
- The number of wings; most airplanes nowadays have one wing on each side of the fuselage, but in the early days airplanes with two or more wings were common.
- The shape of the wings, straight or swept, elliptical or delta, wings come in all sort of shapes. See figures below.
- The location where the wings are attached to the fuselage, e.g. through the fuselage or on top of the fuselage. See figures below.
- The angle at which the wings are attached to the fuselage, swept upward (dihedral) of downward (anhedral) or straight. See figures below.
The simplest shape; the leading edge may have a sweep angle, but the leading edge hasn’t.
The trailing and/or leading edge have the shape of an ellipse.
Compared to the true delta the double delta has different sweep angles on inner and outer wings.
Both leading and trailing edge of the wings have a (positive) sweep angle.
Wings are attached to the fuselage in some way. The location of the wings with respect to the fuselage determines the configuration.
Normal wings are unstable in pitch. Then some form of horizontal stabilising surface is required. This can come in different shapes, before and after the main wing. Here are some common configurations.
Airplanes with a conventional wing configuration or three surface configuration (see above) have a combination of one or more horizontal stabilisers and vertical stabilisers. The most common are tail configurations with a single vertical stabiliser attached to the rear fuselage and horizontal stabilisers on the left and right side. They can be identified by the location of the horizontal stabilisers:
Horizontal stabiliser attached to rear fuselage.
Horizontal stabiliser attached to vertical stabiliser in between fuselage and top.
Horizontal stabiliser attached at top of vertical stabiliser.
There are also tail configurations with multiple vertical stabilisers.
Two vertical stabilisers attached to the fuselage.
Two vertical stabilisers attached at the end of the horizontal stabiliser.
Two vertical stabilisers attached at the end of the horizontal stabiliser and one in the middle.
With a butterfly tail or V tail the horizontal and vertical stabiliser are combined.
When the airplane has a non-standard wing configuration, the vertical stabiliser(s) may be at a whole different location, such as the wing tips. Note the difference with winglets; winglets are smaller than fin tips.
Landing gear configurations
Most airplanes have wheels to land on the earth's surface again. This landing gear can be fixed or (partially) retractable. The landing gear consists of two or more main landing gears and some form of support gear(s). This makes the landing gear configuration. There are three main configurations:
Conventional helicopters can have several ways to compensate for the torque force caused by the main rotor. This force wants to make the fuselage turn around the rotor axis. We distinguish configurations with a single main rotor with and without a tail rotor, and with two equally sized (main) rotors:
Naming of parts
Most of you probably know the names of the most common parts of an airplane, such as the fuselage and the wings. Other parts may be unknown to you. Here are some definitions of airplane parts that you can encounter on this website.