Taxiing an Airplane: How Planes Move on the Ground

How pilots taxi the big airliners

How do pilots taxi a big airliner? To taxi (move) an airplane on the ground the pilot uses a combination of steering and engine power. Foot pedals and a “steering handle” called a tiller are used for directional control.

Like in your car the engines thrust the airplane into motion, by increasing power with the throttles (like the gas pedal in your car).

Taxiing an airplane requires awareness and extreme caution at all times. Here’s a video clip showing how a reckless SUV driver cuts off the airplane while taxiing. YouTube.

How a plane turns while taxiing

For straight-ahead or small few degrees changes in direction, the rudder pedals are operated with your feet to control the direction while taxiing the plane.

How an airplane is taxied in a slight change of direction (a slight turn)

Pressing the rudder pedals turns the nosewheel of the airplane.

steering an airplane on the ground, Rudder pedals on a commercial airliner
Rudder pedals on a Boeing 737. Photo:
  • Turning the plane slightly to the left? Press the left pedal.
  • Turning the plane slightly to the right? Press the right pedal. 
  • Do you need to brake, to slow down the speed, or to stop the airplane? Press the TOP of the rudder pedals, which also work as a brake pedal.

How an airplane is taxied in a sharp turn

Rudder pedals are only designed to control the airplane when small changes of directions are desired or needed.

For sharper turns, the rudder pedals won’t do the job. The rudder pedals are not capable of performing a tighter turning radius.

For sharper turns, the pilot grabs the steering-handle on the side panel by the window, called a “tiller“. 

taxiing an airplane, Boeing 757 tiller
Boeing 757 tiller (ground steering handle). Photo:

A tiller, like the rudder pedals, turns the nosewheel steering mechanism for turning the nosewheel on the ground. The tiller provides you with a much more efficient turning radius than the rudder pedals do.

With a tight grip on the tiller handle, you turn the tiller into the direction you want to turn. 

Do you taxi an airplane with the yoke (the “steering wheel”)?

yoke of a Boeing 767.
A Boeing 757 yoke. Other airplanes use “joystick-like” yokes for the “steering wheels, such as Airbus-models do. Photo:

The yoke is not used to taxi the airplane on the ground. It is only effective as a “steering wheel” while flying. The yoke inputs control the ailerons, rudder and spoiler inputs in the air.

However, the yoke can be used in combination with the rudder pedals during takeoffs and landings to offset the crosswind effect (for airplane stability) when there is a strong crosswind present, blowing into the side of the airplane.

Airport taxiways

Airports have taxiways like a car that has roads. To get from point A to point B you “stay on the designated roads”.

One difference from driving your car is that you don’t taxi an airplane by staying on the right (or left) side of the road.

An airplane taxis by keeping the nosewheel on the centerline of the taxiway.

Because an airplane is long the pilot has to think like a trucker when he or she is making a turn. To avoid overshooting or undershooting the turn you have to negotiate each turn you make. This is especially true for sharp turns in longer airplanes, such as widebody aircraft.

airplane taxi lineup at LAX
Extreme caution must be exercised at all times for total safety while taxiing an airplane. Photo:

Starting airplane taxiing

When you first put the airplane in motion it’s important to exercise extreme caution for everything around you.

Applying thrust (gas), you create a blast behind each engine and inlet suction in front of the engine. People, equipment, and anything else in the way can be injured or damaged from the operation of a jet engine.

Before you apply power to the engines the areas in the front of each engine are another super-critical factor that must be carefully negotiated.

The immediate area in the front of a jet engine creates an area where people and equipment can be sucked into the engine if anything is too close to the intake.

How fast do airplanes taxi?

The airplane flight manual specifies the maximum speeds allowed for taxiing. Airport regulations and the airline’s training department can also specify a maximum allowable taxi speed.

Guidelines typically limit max speed for taxiing straight ahead to 20 KTS (23 mph). Approaching a turn you should slow to 8-12 KTS (9-14 mph).

How do you manage to stay safe during taxiing?

Complete and continuous safety is the result of a methodical cautionary vigilance involving anyone close to the airplane at all times.

Of course, that starts inside the airplane, with the pilot (or mechanic taxiing the airplane for maintenance).

Responsibilities extend to all ramp or ground personnel, vehicles on the ground, and to the air traffic ground controller, as well as other pilots, taxiing mechanics, and planes in the vicinity of your aircraft.

Taxiing an airplane on the ground questions or comments

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Udated August 3, 2020.

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