Control Failure (Part I): Flying Without Elevators

Imagine helplessly watching as your airplane wrenches itself (and you with it) into an unusual attitude, rolls over on its back and points (nose down and inverted) at a schoolyard. No fun, right? Your best preflight can’t immunize you from having an elevator control failure and turning that spam can into a coffin with wings, BUT knowing what to do and taking prompt action *can*. Read and remember!

Control surface failures come in several rotten flavors, depending on whether it happens to your ailerons, rudder, elevators, or flaps. This time we’ll look at the most serious one: elevator control failure. But first, a cheery warm-up…

BLUEPRINT for a PROBLEM: Airplanes have fixed appendages with hinged control surfaces that allow them to climb and maneuver in three dimensions. These surfaces are connected to the cockpit controls by a system of steel cables and pulleys, or pushrods and bellcranks. All of those things are hidden in the nether regions of the fuselage. Unless you unscrew a bunch of access plates on your preflight, you won’t see most of it. The system always works perfectly — on paper — but in the real world, crimps can slip, cables grow slack and come off of pulleys, and small, foreign objects can slide around and jam pushrods. It happens.

DEFENSE: Don’t Panic. Consciously remind yourself to fly gently, restricting attitude changes to a very few degrees of pitch and bank. You have just become a test pilot, so think like one. There are three primary weapons at your disposal.

  • Center of Gravity: You can alter this, somewhat, depending on how much junk you’re hauling around and if anybody is up there with you to help out.
  • Power Changes: Most airplanes will either pitch up or down (usually up) with added power. Controlled use of the throttle might do it alone.
  • The blessed trim tab. That’s the ‘elevator within the elevator.’ In most situations, this is your best bet to save the day.

Inside Information: Design criteria (for singles anyway) require that they be landable without any primary pitch control. It *can* be done. Just be patient with the aircraft, you will probably have to endure at least some porpoising.


  1. That trim wheel (or button) just became your best friend.
  2. There’s ‘no place like home’, but not today … if home means a 2,700 foot runway, don’t go back there. Find the nearest and longest runway you’re familiar with and go there.
  3. Get on the horn and shout ‘mayday!‘ Say it loud and clear; three times is the charm. Use whatever frequency you’re on first. If you don’t get a response, go to 121.5. Dial up 7700 on the old squawk box, too. The FAA is your friend, today anyway.
  4. Go back to number two and make a long, shallow approach to that two-mile runway.

There are two types of elevator control failure: the cable break and the cable jam. Surviving either requires very different technique and it’s up to YOU to quickly and gingerly find out which brand you’ve got. Whatever’s going on, the fewer configuration changes you make (flaps, gear) the better. Remember, both of those actions — especially flaps — will induce a pitch change that you are ill equipped to correct in a timely and accurate fashion.

BRAND A: If you’ve lost the cable, you’re still in good shape. The elevator will be free-floating and you will use the trim wheel just like you do in ho-hum flying. Imagine the wheel is your airplane. You’ll pitch in the same direction you make it spin.

BRAND B: If it’s jammed, the trim tab is now a baby-sized elevator and control will be reversed — rolling the wheel forward will bring the nose up, rolling it back will push the nose over. While still at altitude, apply a brief jab or two on the stick or column, forward and back, if you’ve got the jam version. Warning: If you do manage to move the control wheel, things might get less sticky, then again, they might get worse. Also, the inherent looseness in non-pushrod systems may allow only minimal control.

Inside Information: Ground effect usually induces nose-down in pitch, so be prepared to use small power changes to cushion your landing. And don’t use flaps! Pitch is very sensitive to flap position. Once your wheels are on the ground, everything is back to normal (a few hours later, maybe).

BOTTOM LINE Coping with the loss of your elevator can be terrifying, but it doesn’t ever have to be fatal. Stay cool, know your options and how to use that trim tab — and be prepared to adapt if things don’t go exactly as you read it here.