High wing or low wing? Ask Mother Nature

I agonized over this for a very long time before I bought my first airplane. It seems to be one of those endless hangar discussions that divides pilots into one of three camps that almost serves as a form of introduction. And so, “Hi, my name is Dan, I’m a high-wing guy. How about you? Oh, you like low wing aircraft because you can see the numbers as you turn base to final? Yeah, that’s cool but I really like how I can see more of the view underneath me as I’m cruising along.” That’s the usual kickoff starting the debate between two camps, one we’ll call high wing believers versus the other camp we’ll call low wing believers.

Not to be forgotten, there’s a smaller, third camp which I’ve come to call the any-wingers. These are pilots who will enter the conversation with a wonderfully flexible attitude. They’ll fly anything, even biplanes and even the less common mid-wing aircraft, which includes many warbirds and gliders. But, as I said, this is a much smaller group and not one that was helpful in my airplane buying decision.

Pterodactyl
Mother Nature’s answer?

When the time came for me to shop for the plane I did some serious research. Even though I had trained in both low- and high-wing aircraft, I hadn’t developed much of a preference based on my limited experience and therefore I asked some CFIs and other pilots what they thought. Not very helpful as I encountered those two camps of believers everywhere I went. Some opinions were pretty strong.

I took to the literature for some advanced research, or at least back to basics research. A brief overview of The Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge didn’t help much. While it provided basic descriptions of the design differences between various configurations it did little to give me any guidance as to what I should buy. Likewise, The Airplane Flying Handbook. No luck there either.

No surprise that the whole high-wing vs low-wing debate also carries over to YouTube with lots of videos and lots of opinions.

I abandoned the idea of putting together a pros and cons list. There were too many strong opinions even including some seemingly out-of-the-box considerations like high-wing aircraft cause head injuries when the pilot or passenger walks into the trailing edge of the wing. Or, which plane offers better survival odds in a water ditching.

Anyway, while at the beach a few years ago, I watched the shore birds and thought, is there anything more beautiful than birds gently flying overhead? And, I noticed that they’re all high-wing aircraft. As a matter of fact, the more I looked into it the more obvious it became. Mother Nature doesn’t make any low-wing aircraft. None. The entire avian class appear to be high-wings. Even flightless birds like penguins have their wings attached above the fuselage.

Now I was really on a roll towards guidance in the high-wing or low-wing decision. If Mother Nature favored high-wings in her own creations, who was I to argue? Additionally, everywhere I looked in the animal kingdom, even mammals have high-wing aircraft—bats and flying squirrels for instance. Flying insects like butterflies and beetles? Yep, all high-wings. How about dinosaurs? Without looking up a skeleton or artist’s rendition you’ll note that the winged reptiles, pterodactyls of the late Triassic Period were—you guessed it—high-wing aircraft.

I’m sure you by now surmise that I ended up deciding on a high-wing airplane and you’d be correct. (Admittedly, it was kind of a dinosaur but I loved it, a Cessna 150.) Before you pilots in the low-wing camp criticize me for flimsy aeronautical buying decision-making because so what, after all, Mother Nature doesn’t make any propellers or rotorcraft, I would encourage you to check out seeds of the maple tree. They’re called winged samaras. When I was a kid we called them helicopters. Ash and a few other trees produce rotorcraft, too.

In conclusion, if it’s good enough for Mother Nature, I’m sticking with high-winged planes. Anything else would simply be unnatural. Wait a minute. What? There are fish that can fly? And flying fish are mid-winged? Now that’s really unnatural!

45 Comments

  • Good points, but never mentioned is the fact that Mother Nature flyers are constantly looking for prey, low wings wouldn’t help much, also they need to flap there wings up & down to get airborne, low wings wouldn’t provide the room to flap!

    • Seems none of the comments address the main convenience of low wing aircraft. Which plane is easier to fuel. As you age climbing ladders is not the fun it used to be, especially dragging a 20 pound hose and nozzle up on top of the wing and sloshing out fuel on to your paint cause you really can’t see down into the tank. Then there is that night cross country, and the fuel farm light is out and you can’t find the ladder or someone tossed it over in the high grass and your trying to step up on that tiny foot tab and the strut with your mini mag flash light in your mouth and you slip and chip your tooth.

      Of course, if you’re lucky enough to be in an airport with a fuel truck and spend that extra $15 per fill up, problem solved. $1500 every hundred flights isn’t all that bad.

      But of course there’s always that argument do you prefer to sit on top of the wing or hang underneath it.

  • There is a pusher prop plane out there with a helicopter type bubble in the front and the wing is in the middle so you see above and below.

    • “I have many hours in both. Comparing a low or high wing singles, high wing Cessna’s fuselage are stronger, like a roll cage. Being a long time A&P, I have had to recover many types of aircraft after off field or airfield crashes. When upside down, cabin structures are mostly intact and more survivable, even when wings come off. Not to be a downer, but a fact of many recoveries. Something to consider, and hope you never have to experience.

  • Not to mention it takes very little muscle for a bird’s wings to go up, but takes a lot of muscle to pull them down. Thus high wing with large breast muscles.

  • Mother Nature solved the visibility problem by having the head and eyes on a long neck well forward of the wings, like most fighter jets.

  • Birds have heads (and therefore their eyes) that are well ahead of their wings. This allows the to look up or down and has no bearing on whether they are high-wing, low-wing or mid-wing. Back to square one with high versus low argument. It’s all a matter of personal preference anyway.

  • My thinking was even more simple – I like getting in and out on the pilot’s side, not in and out the passenger side and crawling over seats. Hard to find a low wing with two doors (that I can afford)

  • I have thousands of hours in both high wing and low wing. Yes, I do have a preference – based on two simple facts. 1. I like to be able to see into my turn and 2. (my biggest and main point – although most people will not admit this point) – Low wings look better!

      • Some random thoughts on my low wing preference (although I like ‘em both). All of my Navy flying was in low wing aircraft, so it feels more familiar. I live near the water and fly along the coast, so there’s a higher possibility for a water ditching in an emergency. Low wing seems more stable for a water ditching. I fly lower and slower than most of the aircraft in our busy airspace, so collision from above is more of a threat than from below. I love looking outside, but I’m usually looking ahead and down, so the low wing is not so much of a factor for me. Taxiing is easier in gusty wind conditions with the wing nearer to the ground. Same concept regarding those last few feet before the wheels touch down on landing. Regardless, love and know the plane you’re with!

    • Ken Killian: Your comments lept jumped out at me…in a positive way.

      Having learned in 1960’s-era Cherokee 180’s while consulting for Miami University and living in Oxford, Ohio as a member of their Flying Club in 1978-79, allow me to proffer my two cents.

      My comparatively-low number of hours has (as opposed to “have”) consisted of CFI-led flight in a Cessna 150 Aerobat, C-172 (who said it cannot be called a Skyhawk?), Aeronca Champ (is there any other brand of Champion?), C-150 Commuter and a J-3 Cub. The Champ, Commuter and Cub were all at Red Stewart Field in Waynesville, Ohio which is a slightly-rolling, uncontrolled, grass strip far enough away from Wright-Patt AFB and the Dayton (Vandalia), Ohio airport. The rural locale is important because of comparison with my time in the Aerobat and Skyhawk over the Detroit River. My granddaughter said it best when she described pre-turn wing-raising as “playing Peek-a-Boo.” The pilot had better hope that s/he sees all potentially-conflicting traffic during those fleeting seconds with the wing not obscuring the view! And air traffic over Detroit versus Waynesville, Ohio…well you only need to see and avoid Sailplanes from Caesar’s Creek GliderPort and occasional traffic from Warren County.
      Am I concerned about mid-air collisions? You betcha. Do they occur frequently enough to just barely create a nagging concern? They do.
      Am I perseverating over all of this ? Yes.
      So…let’s examine the Pro’s, Con’s and Alternatives.

      Okay, I am boring you. In that case, please allow me to fast forward to Alternatives: high-wing Pushers. Examples range from the Sky Arrow from Italy to the Titan Tornado from Austintown, Ohio. Pilot’s eyes (as with any Bird’s or Pterodactyl’s eyes) are in front of the (high) wing Not under it.
      And the prop blowing wind, grit and bugs (as with any tractor configuration Single Engine Land plane) is fortunately absent.

      So…my question for you, Attentive Reader, is:
      Why aren’t Sky Arrows (and other high-wing Pusher-Configuration S.E.L. airplanes) the norm rather than the exception ?

      Nostalgia Note:
      Ah, those halcyon days when we bought a house in Oxford (Rather Than renting one) after moving from Chicago (and before relocating to Golden, Colorado) during which time the Miami University flying club charged a fully-refundable, $300 entry fee and required payment of $14 per hour for one of the three, fuelled PA-28-180 Hershey (Almond) Bar-winged non-floaters.

      • Oh I know the countryside of southern Ohio too as a 1988 Miami graduate. Loved it. My first flying experience was with a NROTC fraternity brother. We rented a plane somewhere and flying near Cincinnati I remember him saying “I think we’re lost.” I’m now a private pilot and love it. My oldest son is in the AF and we talk shop daily.

    • Low wings do look much better. High wings look like trainers for the most part. However, I have no preference and I own one of each

  • Well, here’s my opinion. There is no option for a pilot in Florida (or other sun filled southern states). Must be high wing to at least get some shade. Low wing with a canopy is just a solar oven in Florida. Even with a shade it’s hot and then you restrict your view anyway. (My preference with that stated is low wing.)

  • I learned to fly in a Cessna 152 and immediately checked out in Pipers and never looked back. In my instrument ground school the class got into the high vs low debate. The guy sitting next to me who owned a Cessna says they have the wings on top like a bird. To which I replied, unlike Pipers that have the wings on the bottom, like an airplane. The class had a good laugh on that and the discussion ended.

  • I think most aircraft with retractable gear are low wing mainly from an engineering standpoint, it’s easier to retract the gear into a low wing aircraft than a high wing. Look how a gull tucks it’s legs up when it takes flight, it’s exactly how the gear works on Cessna high wing retractable. I own an early 210 and there is a lot more engineering into the landing gear on it than say a Bonanza.

  • When I was airplane shopping I had quite a bit of time in both types. I remember a discussion on the buying decision which emphasized one important point: The only airplane worth buying is one you can afford to fly. All other considerations fade into insignificance.

  • Primary training in high-wing, advanced training (Instrument & Commercial) in low wing. Aerobatic training in a high-wing. Built and fly a mid-wing (Europa) and a biplane (Little Toot). Doesn’t matter to me where the wings are. If it has wings, I’ll try and fly it.

  • Several good comments above, including some referencing my point. As an engineer, I think the “nature” reasoning is an interesting side point, but nonsense in terms of aircraft. Aircraft do not fly by flapping their wings, birds do. The downward wing flapping requires strong muscles. Birds wings must be high on their bodies, so there is room below for the larger powering muscles, which also support the birds when gliding. It only takes very small muscles to raise birds wings, because those muscles only have to support the weight of their wings.
    If aircraft flew by flapping their wings, they would all be high wing – but they don’t!

  • My first plane I owned was low wing with a plexiglass canopy. Visualization was great but living in Florida was hot. My wife kept saying let’s just have AC installed ( like it was a simple fix). My second plane was high wing. I always liked the low wing look but I like the cool cabin and visualization below even more.

  • I think the high wing only because you don’t have as much ground affect. I never really noticed it that much but everyone said it was so it was. I really like the wings that don’t fall off.

  • I’m with Mr. Killian – I also have thousands of hours in both high wing and low wing, and I like to see where I’m turning. The other advantage to low wing is inflight visibility, for seeing other traffic. The only high wing aircraft I am aware of with good inflight visibility is the Cessna Cardinal, where the pilot sits in front of the wing leading edge!

  • I have trained and flown in both types and find advantages and disadvantages to both high and low wing aircraft. However, for me it comes down to personal comfort and convenience. As others have already mentioned, I enjoy the convenience of having 2 doors to enter and exit. Passengers, I have flown also have mentioned the inconvenience of entering and exiting the low wing aircraft thru the single door over the wing. This is also very evident, if for some reason, the pilot needs to get out after your passenger has already loaded and buckled up. The whole unloading/reloading process has to be repeated. With high wing with 2 doors, this is a simple, fast process.

    High wing aircraft, as others have mentioned are better for weather issues. There is shelter if entering or exiting in the rain and shade during hot sunny days.

    But, just like in photography, it is said that the best camera is the one you have with you. So the best airplane for me is the one I have access to.

  • Let me start off with the following – I’m in the “3rd camp”. I own a low wing but prefer many of the design advantages of the high wing listed by you and so many of the other respondents. My allegiance is to reliability and comfort over wing design.
    That being said, I find your appeal to God’s creation limited in that it fails to take into account why all animal avians are high-winged. The spine is the center of support for vertebrates. It is located dorsally (on the back or high side). As such, the wings naturally anchor to the center of support, and hence are dorsal in nature.
    In airplanes, the center of support is (usually) located on the ventral surface – the belly – of the aircraft. As such, the most logical consequence, following the infinite wisdom and design of our Creator, is to anchor the wings on the ventral surface where the center of support for the aircraft is located.

  • High wings for airshows. (You can sit in the shade)
    Low wings for formation.

    Have owned both.

    Like them all!

    (;>0)

  • Trouble with low-wing configuration in flying animals (are there any?) is location of digestive tract, respiratory system, skeletal layout, nervous system, to name a few. Birds carry light fuel loads in muscle cells and bloodstream, no alternate locomotion, no batteries, and no solar charging. They don’t worry too much about ground effect as VTOL has evolved to a state of near perfection since their dinosaur cousins disappeared. Re-tooling has been tried in fish (mid-wing) but that hasn’t worked out too well.

  • Every cites the high wing’s visibility and ease of entry. That’s almost always true. I am 6′ 6″ tall, with short legs and a long torso. Consequently I have a devil of a time squeezing myself in thru the cabin opening, while its effortless to drop into a cockpit with open canopy. I also sit tall, so my side vision is always obscured by the wings and in some planes, I can’t see forward due to the wing strut.

  • Obviously there are pros and cons to both. What hasn’t been discussed yet is why and when.

    Biplanes were the original because of structural considerations. Cessna left Travelair to build a FASTER airplane. A monoplane and a high wing have less drag.

    If a strut is added, the wing gets much lighter … but drag is added.

    Love them all.

    -Ron

    PS. The T-38 “Talon” is a low wing, but I love the great visibility! And speed

  • Well, you need to look deeper into the stability especially when cruising and landing in cross currents of winds. Air is merely a fluid like water and a quick look at the ocean going critters is they are low wing and includes the vertical and a horizontal stabilizers.. Not true with Mother Nature’s later design for airborne puddle jumpers and the need for those surfaces of almost all aircraft except the B-2, (stingray?)which has to it’s brain “computer” to sort out the yaw.

    Why one might ask and with an observation that these streamline animals are in constant state of movement in the currents and need stability 24/7 while others must drop gear and park for the night. Where is this going?

    For a stable and efficient system gliding through the water, animals exhibit all the features of a low wing aircraft with fins forward and aft and a vertical stab and an air induction used for oxygen transfer in the motivation systems. And by the claims of science, the very first to incorporate control surfaces in the traditional format…

    Birds, well being an afterthought and redesign of what already worked so well for millions of years.

  • I fly an old Cessna 175B, and from an engineering reliability standpoint, I like the reliability advantages of a high wing, carbureted aircraft;
    – gravity feed so no fuel pump to fail
    – a ‘both’ fuel selector, so no need to remember to switch tanks
    – the Cessna ‘triangulated’ structure is very strong.
    – 2 doors to be able to exit quickly if needed.

    I don’t need to fly very fast, so a fixed gear aircraft is ok with me, so there’s no chance of a ‘gear up’ landing.
    BTW, when turning base to final; with 20 degrees of bank, I can lean forward and see the runway ok. I can also easily look to the right for other traffic.

  • Regarding efficiency of flight with a higher wing, take a look at the Jonker JS3 sailplane design. The Jonker Brothers found through computational fluid dynamics that a higher wing is more efficient except when flying upside down.

  • Lively discussion with lots of comments to read through. I didn’t happen to see anyone mention the fact that high wing aircraft land and taxi better over/around snowbanks surrounding runways and taxiways in winter. I’ve flown both high and low wingers in such places, often with very narrow clearance and in the strong crosswinds you’d prudently expect in mountain airports — both can work, but high wingers are obviously better there. Sometimes markedly so, to the point of go/no go. I’d rather be able to go.

  • Something else to bear in mind is that aircraft and flying animals are constructed from different materials, some of which are great in tension, others, in compression. An aircraft constructed from muscle, bone and sinew (if indeed possible) would likely look completely different from conventional flying machines, and probably also smell awfully after a few days.

  • Got one of each. Prefer the low wing for refueling. Prefer the high wing for looking at the ground. The high wing was a good deal so I couldn’t pass it up. Don’t like have to use the ladder for refueling and cleaning (the top of the wings). Getting too old for that.

  • I live in South Western Africa, semi-desert country Namibia, with mostly sunny days an hot climate of average 24 deg Celsius. I am also 6’4”. Have done more than 3,500h on C210’s and own a normal aspirated and a late model turbo. I do annaverage of 140 h a year and average flights of 300mile destinations. Sometimes we do 4 stops a day on dirt strips. It provides a nice seat in the shade when you wait for transport to pick you up. I get into the plane as easy as getting into a vehicle, I do not like walking on assets I worked hard for, a cheap fold-up plastic ladder does sort out refueling issues, if you cannot afford a cap with build-in LED’s you should not refuel by yourself at night. Doing bush-flying and mostly unmanned runways and remote strips you need to see as much as possible for as long as possible when approaching and doing runway inspections low manouvres and close circuits. Many times you need to look back and down to double check whether animals cleared the runway or double chech wind. Low wings not good for that. With day temperatures doing upper 30 C on the ground and 22 C at FL 145 in summer you want to sit in the shade and not be exposed in a plexiglass bubble reach to above your head. So my verdict is that you need to pick a plane that suits your requirements and the destinations you fly to.

  • I taxi to the ramp, set the brakes, do some checks and shut down… AND its raining; guess which wing I like. And I am usually a bit fast in the flair; did that once in a Piper Arrow (low wing) and ground-effected practically the whole length of the runway before I went-around… also couldn’t see that the wheels are down. Low wing?… gimmie a break.

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