Airshow Glossary

helping you to understand terms you may hear at airshows

Airshow commentators are really good at helping visitors to understand what is flying, who is flying and exactly what they are doing. But sometimes the terms might be less easy for infrequent airshow visitors to understand.

Here are some of the things commentators might say, and our attempt to explain what they mean: our 'jargon buster'.

Venue Layout

Definitions are informal

These definitions are intended to help the lay person to understand what is going on. They are not intended to be formal definitions.

A Axis

The direction of flight when aircraft go past the audience in a straight line from left to right or from right to left.

B Axis

An imaginary line at right angles to the A axis. It crosses the A axis at crowd centre.

Crowd Line

A line at the very front of the audience, usually marked with a barrier. The audience must not go beyond this line for safety reasons. The display line is a measured distance from this crowd line.

Crowd Centre

Not necessarily bang in the middle of the crowd line, but the point that highlights are directed at. For example pairs will aim to make passes at this point and breaks and cascades are normally best viewed from here.


The display datum is the centre of the display line. It has to be marked unless it is obvious from some landscape or building feature.

Display Line

A clearly identifiable line marking the closest the aircraft are allowed to fly to the crowd. This may be a landscape feature, possibly parallel to a runway at airstrip shows, or a line of fluorescent buoys at a seaside show. It is not necessarily the same as the actual flightline although aircraft will normally get as close to the display line as they can. There can be several display lines, because how close the aircraft can fly to the crowd varies depending on the speed of the aircraft and on the type of display (aerobatic, flypast or hovering). Normally only the closest and furthest display lines would be marked and the pilots use their judgement if their display line is between the two marked ones.


The imaginary line aircraft aim to fly along. It cannot be closer to the crowd than the display line and most of it is generally parallel to the A axis.


There are three principal ways to control the aircraft. Most manoeuvres are one or a combination of these three:


This is to change the angle of the aircraft from front to back, so that the nose goes up and the tail goes down, or the other way round.


The angle of the aircraft changes from side to side, so that the tip of one wing goes up and the other goes down.


The front of the aircraft goes left and the back goes right, or the other way round, so it swivels whilst flat.

Flying and manoeuvring

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Aircraft usually fly 'clean', that is to say as aerodynamically as possible, with protrusions, such as wheels, retracted. 'Dirty' means unaerodynamic, typically with wheels and flaps down. A 'dirty' aircraft might also have a refuelling nozzle extended or, in the case of a carrier landing, an arrester hook. A dirty pass is a pass in dirty configuration - possibly to demonstrate a landing - and a dirty loop would be a loop performed with the landing gear (at least) deployed.


The right way up.


Upside down.

Echelon Right

Each aircraft slightly behind and to the right of the one in front.

Echelon Left

Each aircraft slightly behind and to the left of the one in front.

Line Astern

Each aircraft is directly behind (and generally slightly below) the one in front.


Gravitational force. Usually expressed as a number followed by G, such as 4G. It is the force of gravity on the aircraft and its occupants. A higher number makes the body feel heavier, as if there is a weight bearing down on the aircraft and pilot, equivalent to the body weight multiplied by the G number. A minus number makes the body feel lighter.


Flying along the flightline, from left to right or from right to left.

Inverted Pass

Flying along the flightline, upside down

Mirror Pass

One aircraft the right way up and another above it and upside down, so that one looks like a mirror reflection of the other.

Opposition Pass

Opposition Pass

One or more aircraft fly along the flightline from the left: the other(s) fly along the same line from the right. The aircraft aim to cross close to each other at crowd centre. In practice, aircraft flying in one direction keep a straight path and the aircraft flying in the other direction adjust speed to achieve crowd centre and adjust direction to avoid a collision.

Canopy-Up Pass (also called Topside pass)

Flying along the A axis, tilted at an angle towards the crowd with the furthest wing raised, giving a good view of the cockpit and top of the aircraft.

Knife-edge Pass

More extreme than the Canopy-up pass, because the wings are not just tilted, but virtually vertical, so the whole of the topside (or underside) is visible to the crowd.



The aircraft generally start along the B axis flying towards crowd centre. At the same instant they separate, moving away from the centre in unison, usually moving vertically as well as horizontally, and at the same degree of separation, creating a broadening pattern in the sky. Various formations can be created such as fans, fountains or cascades if a sufficient number of aircraft are involved.

Flat Break

The aircraft fly towards crowd centre along the B Axis, straight towards the crowd. Before reaching the display line one or more turn hard to the left and one or more turn hard to the right but without going up or down.


Starting from level flight, the aircraft's nose lifts (like a plane taking off) but in a circular way rather than a straight line. The curved take-off continues all the way round the circle, ideally ending at the same point that the loop began and continuing along the same path that it was taking before the loop began. The appearance is that one or more aircraft create a vertical circle in the sky.

In an inside loop the canopy is always pointing inwards, towards the centre of the circle. In an outside loop the canopy points outwards.

Roll (Aileron Roll)

Whilst making a pass (generally a flat, initially erect pass) the aircraft does one twirl (makes one complete turn on the horizontal axis). Unless otherwise described, the roll is at a constant speed. It can be slow or fast.

Hesitation Roll

Like an aileron roll, but with planned momentary stops at predetermined points. A four-point hesitation roll, for example, has four stops at equal intervals in the roll.


This manoeuvre begins like an inside loop, but when 5/8ths has been completed, i.e. when the aircraft is pointing 45 degrees down (as always in a loop the plane is inverted at this point), the aircraft performs a half-roll, i.e. a roll through 180 degrees, so that it is upright. The aircraft then flies out horizontal. The pilot can adjust the interval between the half-roll and returning to horizontal to adjust speed and height. The effect of the manoeuvre is to reverse direction.

Reverse Half-Cuban

This starts with a pull-up from the horizontal to 45 degrees. The aircraft does the half-roll at this point to become inverted and continues the remaining 5/8ths of the loop, returning to horizontal, erect flight.

Cuban (Cuban 8)

Two Half-cubans can be combined (with half-rolls at each of the 45 degree points) to make a Cuban, or 'Cuban 8'. The full Cuban eight (or pair of half-Cubans) draws a figure of 8 on its side.

Reverse Cuban

A pair of reverse half-cubans.

Barrel Roll

A combination of a loop and a roll. The aircraft completes one loop but at the same time twists through a complete turn. The very beginning is similar to the loop, but after the circle begins the aircraft twists gradually through 360 degrees. Like the loop, the aircraft is in the same position at the end as it was in the beginning.

Wingover (also called a cropduster turn)

The aircraft climbs vertically until it almost stalls, then turns at the top of its climb and, nose pointed back to earth, falls vertically so it is flying in a direction opposite to its original direction. Imagine a car heading down a cul-de-sac, doing a handbrake turn at the end and returning. It is like that but vertically.


The aircraft flies vertically, straight up, until it loses momentum. It then falls backwards, tail first, retracing its upward path. Eventually the nose drops through 180 degrees, so that it is pointing down position. The aircraft then goes through a quarter-loop to recover level flight.


During air displays in the UK there is an absolute limit for all aircraft of 600 kt or Mach 0.90, whichever is reached first.
The indicated speed in knots depends on variables such as height but Mach is more easily understood.
Mach is the ratio of the speed of a moving object to the speed of sound. Mach 1 is the speed of sound. The speed of sound varies depending on factors such as temperature and humidity. In dry air, at 0 degrees Celsius, the speed of sound is about 331.3 meters per second or 741 mph to the nearest whole number. So Mach 0.90 is 90% of the speed of sound, which is 667 mph, or 1111.32 kilometers per hour.
Civilian registered aircraft are not allowed to exceed 250 kts unless a CAA Exemption has been issued to the operator for that aircraft