Horizontal vs Vertical Stabilizers in Airplanes: What’s the Difference?

Stabilizers are an important component of an airplane. They live up to their namesake by “stabilizing” the airplane and, thus, preventing unwanted movement. Whether it’s a commercial jet or a private propeller airplane, most airplanes are designed with stabilizers. There are two primary types of stabilizers used in airplanes, however, including horizontal and vertical. So, what’s the difference between horizontal and vertical stabilizers exactly?

What Is a Horizontal Stabilizer?

Located on the left and right sides of the airplane’s tail, a horizontal stabilizer is designed to maintain the airplane’s trim. In works by creating an upwards force that balances the airplane, horizontally, during flight. As the airplane flies, its horizontal stabilizers will push the air upwards to prevent swings in trim.

Horizontal stabilizers are rather simple components that consist of small and thin pieces of material — typically the same material from which the fuselage is constructed. They essentially look like small wings on the sides of the tail. Both the left and right sides of an airplane’s tail will have a horizontal stabilizer. While horizontal stabilizers create a vertical force during flight, they extend horizontally from the sides of the tail.

What Is a Vertical Stabilizer?

Also known as a vertical fin, a vertical stabilizer is a component that’s designed to minimize side slip — a phenomenon that occurs when an airplane begins to fly to the side — while subsequently helping the airplane maintain its course. Without a vertical stabilizer, an airplane may be pushed to the side. When side slip such as this occurs, it can take the airplane off its intended course. Pilots can typically correct their course, but it comes at the cost of additional fuel consumption. Therefore, vertical stabilizers are used to solve these problems.

The vertical stabilizer is found on the tail of an airplane. Like horizontal stabilizers, it consists of a small and thin piece of material that looks like a miniature wing. The vertical stabilizer, however, is installed vertically on the airplane’s tail, whereas the horizontal stabilizers are installed horizontally on the airplane’s tail.

It’s important to note that some airplanes have multiple vertical stabilizers. Several military airplanes, for instance, feature either two or three vertical stabilizers. Known as twin-tail or triple-tail wings, respectively, they are designed to offer a superior level of control. With that said, most commercial airplanes only have a single vertical stabilizer. When looking at a commercial airplane, you’ll see the vertical stabilizer located on top of the tail.