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A flight control system is an interconnected network of controls which allows a pilot to fly an aircraft. There are a number of different styles of flight control system, ranging from the basic to the extremely complex, and refinements to these systems are constantly being designed to make aircraft safer and easier to fly. Much like the pedals and steering wheel in a car, flight control systems allow pilots to control the speed and direction of their aircraft, and a whole lot more, so that they can bring a plane safely from point A to point B.
The earliest flight control systems were purely mechanical. To do something like move the flaps on a plane, the pilot would pull a lever attached to a wire which would physically pull the flaps in the direction the pilot desired. Eventually, aircraft designers developed hydromechanical systems, which boosted the system with hydraulics to make it easier to operate. Hydromechanical systems also included innovations such as springs which provided feedback so that a pilot could not pull too hard or too suddenly and damage the plane.
Modern flight control systems utilize what is known as a fly-by-wire system. In these systems, the pilot uses electronic controls which communicate with the various components of the system. Both analog and digital fly-by-wire systems are available, with digital systems being more common in commercial aircraft. A digital flight control system provides computerized controls, along with input from a computer system which collects data about how the plane is performing.
Some systems are partially or fully automated, making decisions on the basis of the information they gather. Automation has a clear advantage, because it allows the controls of a plane to respond to emerging issues before the pilot even notices them. The Intelligent Flight Control System (ICFS), a system developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), is designed to compensate for damages to the aircraft with a number of failsafes and an intelligent neural network which learns as the plane is flown.
Learning how to operate a flight control system can take time, because there is a great deal of information to absorb. In addition to learning about the dynamics of flight, the pilot needs to become familiar with a huge array of controls which do everything from moving the landing gear on the aircraft to adjusting the flaps on the wings during takeoff and landing.