Aviation Fly-By-Wire

A fly-by-wire (FBW) system replaces manual flight control of an aircraft with an electronic interface. The movements of flight controls are converted to electronic signals transmitted by wires (hence the fly-by-wire term), and flight control computers determine how to move the actuators at each control surface to provide the expected response. Commands from the computers are also input without the pilot's knowledge to stabilize the aircraft and perform other tasks.

Basic operation Command

Fly-by wire systems are by their nature quite complex however their operation can be explained in relatively simple terms. When a pilot moves the control column (or sidestick) a signal is sent to a computer, this is analogous to moving a game controller, the signal is sent through multiple wires (channels) to ensure that the signal reaches the computer. When there are three channels being used this is known as 'Triplex'. The computer receives the signals, performs a calculation (adds the signal voltages and divides by the number of signals received to find the mean average voltage) and adds another channel. These four 'Quadruplex' signals are then sent to the control surface actuator and the surface begins to move. Potentiometers in the actuator send a signal back to the computer (usually a negative voltage) reporting the position of the actuator. When the actuator reaches the desired position the two signals (incoming and outgoing) cancel each other out and the actuator stops moving (completing a feedback loop)


Three gyroscopes fitted with sensors are fitted in the aircraft to sense movement changes in the pitch, roll and yaw axes. Any movement (from straight and level flight for example) results in signals being sent to the computer which again moves the relevant control actuators, however, the input is done without the pilot's knowledge; the cockpit controls do not move.

Safety and redundancy

Aircraft systems may be quadruplexed (four independent channels) in order to prevent loss of signals in the case of failure of one or even two channels. High performance aircraft that have FBW controls (also called CCVs or Control-Configured Vehicles) may be deliberately designed to have low or even negative aerodynamic stability in some flight regimes, the rapid-reacting CCV controls compensating for the lack of natural stability.

Pre-flight safety checks of a fly-by-wire system are often performed using Built-In Test Equipment (BITE). On programming the system, either by the pilot or groundcrew, a number of control movement steps are automatically performed. Any failure will be indicated to the crews. Some aircraft, the Panavia Tornado for example, retain a very basic hydro-mechanical backup system for limited flight control capability on losing electrical power, in the case of the Tornado this allows rudimentary control of the tailerons only for pitch and roll axis movements.

Weight Saving

A FBW aircraft can be lighter than a similar design with conventional controls. Partly due to the lower overall weight of the system components; and partly because the natural aerodynamic stability of the aircraft can be relaxed, slightly for a transport aircraft and more for a maneuverable fighter, which means that the stability surfaces that are part of the aircraft structure can therefore be made smaller. These include the vertical and horizontal stabilizers (fin and tailplane) that are (normally) at the rear of the fuselage. If these structures can be reduced in size, airframe weight is reduced. The advantages of FBW controls were first exploited by the military and then in the commercial airline market. The Airbus series of airliners used full-authority FBW controls beginning with their A320 series, see A320 flight control (though some limited FBW functions existed on A310). Boeing followed with their 777 and later designs.

Electronic fly-by-wire systems can respond flexibly to changing aerodynamic conditions, by tailoring flight control surface movements so that aircraft response to control inputs is appropriate to flight conditions. Electronic systems require less maintenance, whereas mechanical and hydraulic systems require lubrication, tension adjustments, leak checks, fluid changes, etc. Furthermore, putting circuitry between pilot and aircraft can enhance safety; for example the control system can try to prevent a stall, or it can stop the pilot from over stressing the airframe.

The main concern with fly-by-wire systems is reliability. While traditional mechanical or hydraulic control systems usually fail gradually, the loss of all flight control computers could immediately render the aircraft uncontrollable. For this reason, most fly-by-wire systems incorporate either redundant computers (triplex, quadruplex etc.), some kind of mechanical or hydraulic backup or a combination of both. A "mixed" control system such as the latter is not desirable and modern FBW aircraft normally avoid it by having more independent FBW channels, thereby reducing the possibility of overall failure to minuscule levels that are acceptable to the independent regulatory and safety authority responsible for aircraft design, testing and certification before operational service.