The Pros and Cons of T-Tail Aircraft

Posted on January 23, 2023 James Williams The Pros and Cons of T-Tail Aircraft

Aircraft models can be classified in several ways, including by engine type, purpose, or size. Another less common characterization is the tail assembly, though it allows aircraft to be grouped based on the design of their empennage. Depending on the application, the empennage may feature a V-Tail, cruciform, boom-mounted, or conventional design, but one of the most common across all uses is the T-tail. This intuitive configuration can be identified by the vertical and horizontal stabilizers found on top of the fuselage. Each of the mentioned formats varies in arrangement significantly, and each has certain benefits and disadvantages. In this blog, we will look into the advantages and downfalls associated with T-tail aircraft.  

In a T-tail aircraft configuration, the tailplane is attached to the top of the fin, rather than the base of the fuselage. The rationale behind this choice is that an offset stabilizer package increases fuselage aerodynamics, which is evidenced by decreased drag during testing. As a result, T-tail airplanes deliver improved performance and fuel efficiency at cruising speed. Tail strikes, which involve the empennage striking the runway during takeoff, are also less likely to occur with a T-tail design. Similarly, both stabilizers are better protected from foreign object debris (FOD) with increased clearance. Without a tailplane taking up real estate at the aft end of the vessel, larger objects have ample space to fit comfortably. As such, many military and civilian cargo aircraft have adopted the T-tail configuration.
Besides the practical and ergonomic advantages of the T-tail design, there is also the aspect of enhanced control. The elevators are critical flight control surfaces that modulate the aircraft's pitch and angle of attack. In conventional or other low-empennage configurations, the elevator is prone to the deleterious effects of propeller downwash and turbulent airflow around the fuselage. With undisturbed elevator operation, the pilot is given more flexibility in regard to routine and emergency movements.
Despite the empiric benefits of T-tail vessels, there are some significant drawbacks that have made the layout less appealing over the years. Notably, they are more susceptible to a phenomenon called a deep stall in which the wake created by the wings curtails the ability of the empennage control surfaces to properly function. These incidents are less likely at a shallow angle of attack, but dynamic aircraft such as fighter jets must often perform excessive maneuvers that increase the likelihood of a deep stall. As a result, modern T-tails are only found on specific models, such as the Bombardier CRJ, Embraer E-Jet, and Airbus A320.
Further considerations include maintenance feasibility and uncontained engine failures. From an inspection standpoint, a higher tailplane is much harder to visualize for frost, debris, and any other defects while on the ground. Moreover, when damage does affect such structures, it is much harder to manage without a dedicated facility. Given the extra room, many models will also feature aft engines. Although there are some advantages to this configuration, it comes with an increased risk of uncontained engine failure given the proximity of all engines and flight control surfaces.
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