Can a Commercial Airplane Fly Upside Down?


The answer is yes. Though a commercial airplane is capable of flying inverted, the flight mostly falls under theoretical paradigm. The reason I push the model towards a theoretical paradigm is because, such airplanes are not designed to fly inverted for a long time. If it was a fighter plane or an aerobatic plane, the answer would’ve been a lot simpler to explain.

If you are picturing the 2012 movie, FLIGHT, you may ask if that landing is possible too. The case in the movie is that the pilots lose their elevator control, as the jackscrew fails and the horizontal stabilizer jams in the nose-down position. The jet plunges towards the ground in an uncontrollable dive. So as any captain would do, Denzel Washington as Whip Whitaker, orders his co-pilot to throw out spoilers, flaps and landing gears to obtain some aerodynamic drag as he reduced the speed. Theoretically with that speed from the rapid descent, the structural stress on the surfaces would be undesirable and it would’ve ripped out those surfaces off the plane. But still somehow, they manage to fly without any disasters and finally to counter the drag, the pilot rolls the plane an entire 360 degree to level the plane. (Somehow the jammed stabilizer works when he rolls back after the engine flameout, and that’s purely a Hollywood thing or a miracle!)

Geekswipe_Can a commercial airplane fly upside down_Res_Flight_1

The reason why the plane is rolled upside down here is that the jammed elevator, in an inverted nose-down position will tend to keep the plane from diving further. On the contrary, the airplane’s wings will not, unless adjusted to balance the forces. As they are cambered, the lift will be now a negative lift and the only possible way to maintain the flight is to adjust it with the speed so that it balances the forces. So with more thrust from the engines the flight was able to maintain the altitude until the engine flameout occurred.

As seen here, it is possible for an airplane to fly in an inverted condition. But that flight would end too soon, as the fuel will stop reaching the engine’s combustion chambers, due to the reason that the fuel is usually sucked from the bottom of the wings. This eventually leads to a condition called flameout, where the engine shuts down due to the insufficient fuel supply. The oil pressure in the engine also drops. These explain why a commercial airplane cannot fly longer in an inverted position.

In reality, a Boeing 707 prototype was subjected to two barrel rolls by the test pilot, Tex Johnston in 1955.

However, he did not fly in the inverted position for a long time. There are too many complications involved for a commercial airplane, like an engine flameout and it has never been tested before.

And again, the answer is yes you can fly a plane upside down – more in a theoretical system than in a practical world.

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This post was first published on June 23, 2014.


Karthikeyan KC

Aeronautical engineer, dev, science fiction author, gamer, and an explorer. I am the creator of Geekswipe. I love writing about physics, aerospace, astronomy, and python. I created Swyde. Currently working on Arclind Mindspace.

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6 Responses

  1. The recovery of that jammed elevator is the biggest plot hole ever!

  2. Avatar AbisageHibachi

    Dude! You made me watch the movie again. Not that I care about the physics, but cuz the article is more dramatic than the movie. How about aerobatic planes? They seem to fly like for minutes. Thanks in advance.

    • Avatar Flight Sucks

      They have some sort of ‘inverted configurations’ to stay level. Not much on the web though!

    • Thanks :) Aerobatic planes are designed to fly inverted for a long time. Their fuel tanks are fitted with pick-up tubes that bends, depending on the airplane’s flight. I will explain this in detail in my next article.

      • There is one inaccurate statement in your article. It states ‘inverted wings produce negative lift’, this is not true. Inverted wings also produce lift in upward direction but with a far lesser efficiency. This is also one reason why u can’t hold aircraft inverted for long time. It’s nose starts to drop.

        • You are right about inverted wings producing lift. But this is a commercial airliner and as far as cambered airfoils go, a sudden inverted flight will generate a negative lift even with positive AOA – unless corrected back (i.e. pitched down enough to generate a positive lift).

          Perhaps I’ll have to rephrase it in the article. Thanks for pointing this out, Suhas.