No doubt, many lively hanger debates have erupted over which design is better — high-wing or low-wing. Aviation, just like every pastime, has controversial topics and opinionated devotees. Gearheads debate Ford and GM, camera-lovers pit Canon against Nikon, and powerboaters will never fully understand sailors.
As is true in many of these examples, the truth is "it depends." Among many factors, it depends on what you want to use the plane for.
Key Differences Between High-Wing and Low-Wing Aircraft
Here's a look at some of the differences between high-wing and low-wing aircraft from the pilot's perspective. Sure, there are design and aerodynamic differences between the two. But the manufacturers correct for these, so the result is that operating one is very similar to the other.
First, and most perhaps most importantly, is the question of visibility. A wing is a large object, and the closer it is to your eyes, the more of the sky it obscures. When a pilot sits in the typical high-wing plane, their head is very near the wing. As a result, the wing blocks a considerable portion of the sky from their perspective.
In contrast, the pilot's eyes are farther away from a low-wing, usually by a few feet. That reduces the amount of the sky that is blocked — not a lot, but a noticeable amount.
There are other perspective issues at play, too. When high-wing airplanes bank into a turn, the direction it is traveling becomes blocked by the wing. That means that it is vitally important to lift the wing to clear for traffic before entering the turn because you cannot see it in the turn. It also makes lining up your traffic pattern turns and keeping them square a little trickier. A low-wing design has none of these problems since there's always a clear view of where you're traveling in turns.
Make no mistake, both types of planes have dangerous blind spots. High-wing pilots cannot see above them, and low-wing pilots cannot see below them. There have been accidents where a low-wing pilot landed on top of a departing high-wing plane, and neither pilot ever saw the other. No matter what plane you are flying, you must know where the blind spots are and make sure they are cleared of traffic.
High-wings have a clear advantage if you want to see what's on the ground. High-wings make excellent platforms for sightseeing or aerial photography. The landing gear and the wing strut still block some portion of the view, however.
When a high-wing aircraft stalls, the disrupted airflow usually settles on the horizontal tail surfaces and causes a noticeable buffet that you can feel in the flight controls. This is not the case with most low wings, so the "feel" of a stall can be radically different from the pilot's perspective. Many low wings have little or no control buffeting and settle very gently into a stall.
High-wing planes are generally easier for the pilot and passengers to get in and out of. Low-wings require climbing up on the wing. The most common low-wing trainer, the Piper Cherokee family, has only one door on the right-hand side. That means the pilot must enter first, and the passengers enter last. Plus, it requires climbing over the seat and through the small cockpit. Some newer designs, like the Diamond DA-40 Star, have a lift canopy that allows entry from both sides.
The final difference that is noticeable is that a low wing is more affected by ground effect. This means that they can more easily float on landing, especially if any excess speed is carried into the round out.
Which Design is Best for Students?
For students looking to learn to fly, the debate between high-wing and low-wing planes is of little importance. Other factors are so much more important, like finding a knowledgeable and experienced flight instructor. You can learn to fly any airplane with the right flight instructor.
If there were dramatic differences between the two aircraft designs, the FAA would establish specific training requirements. For example, complex or high-performance airplanes require an endorsement from an instructor before flying them. Nothing like this exists for high or low wing airplanes, and that's because they are very similar.
Pros and Cons of High Wings
- Great visibility of the ground for sightseeing
- Easy to get in and out of
- High ground clearance for off-airport or bush flying
- Easy to inspect and work on the landing gear
- More noticeable control buffet during the approach to stall
- Can use simple gravity-fed fuel systems with no pumps
- Wings provide shade or rain block when on the ground
- Requires special maneuvering on the ground and in the air to clear blind spots
- Fueling requires climbing on the wing, usually with a ladder
Pros and Cons of Low Wings
- Better flight visibility with easier-to-manage blind spots
- Wider landing gear stance for better stability on the ground
- Easy fueling
- Generally, higher performance and lower drag designs
- Limited view below the aircraft
- More affected by ground effect, can float during landing
- Difficult to inspect under the wings and landing gear
- Less warning of approaching stall
- Requires a fuel pump to operate the engine
So, High-Wing or Low-Wing? Which One Is Better?
The truth is that the differences between high-wing and low-wing planes for most pilots are negligible. While there are certainly differences, none of them can be used to definitively prove that one design is superior to the other. Once you've flown in both, you'll quickly see that the similarities greatly outweigh any minor differences.