What do you call the angle of the direction of an airplane? I am thinking of "tilt" or "slant", but I am not if there's a more specific word for planes. I am thinking there's a more technical word for it, but I am not sure.

For example:

The pilot changed the tilt of the aircraft nose by pushing the joystick forward.

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    "Joystick" isn't used in aviation. Modern Airbuses use something that looks similar, but it's a sidestick. Fighter planes use a stick. Most other planes use a yoke, which slightly resembles a steering wheel.
    – Adam
    Commented Jul 1, 2019 at 19:27
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    Joystick certainly is used in modern aviation, for those planes that have one. (Most of us don't fly Airbuses or fighter jets, you know.) Typical single-engine planes will have a yoke (or "control yoke) that looks rather like the steering wheel of a car (but doesn't really work like one). Many sailplanes and acrobatic airplanes do use joysticks, though.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 5:05
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    You can push the nose down or you can change the pitch of the entire aircraft, but I wouldn't say the pilot changed the "tilt of the nose" (or even the "pitch of the nose").
    – David K
    Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 5:49
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    @Sean Somehow I doubt they used the yoke for that, and then the term seems to be "drooped the nose."
    – David K
    Commented Jul 3, 2019 at 23:52
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    @Sean :-). ... Anyway all the more reason to be clear which one is meant.
    – David K
    Commented Jul 3, 2019 at 23:55

5 Answers 5


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I believe these are the appropriate technical terms, and more can be read here. But an airplane has 3 angles that can vary, but the one you are specifically referring to is pitch.

The closest dictionary defintion I found was in CED:

the amount of slope, especially of a roof


The direction that an (air)plane or a (sea)ship is pointing to is called heading:

the compass direction in which the longitudinal axis of a ship or aircraft points

The direction that an (air)plane or a (sea)ship is moving is called course:

the direction of travel of a vehicle (such as a ship or airplane) 1

Heading and course can be different when there is wind (or when there is a water current in the case of a ship).

"Heading" and "course" are expressed in cardinal directions (i.e. "north/south/west/east") or degrees of rotation relative to the north (e.g. "heading 90 degrees" and "heading east" are synonyms). These are measured on a horizontal (geometric) plane, (i.e. a surface which is perpendicular to the direction of gravity).

The "up/down" direction that an airplane is pointing to relative to the horizontal plane is called pitch angle:

The pitch axis [...] has its origin at the center of gravity and is directed to the right, parallel to a line drawn from wingtip to wingtip. Motion about this axis is called pitch.

The "up/down" direction that an airplane is moving relative to the air around is called angle of attack:

[...] the angle between a reference line on a body [...] and the vector representing the relative motion between the body and the fluid through which it is moving.

The "up/down" direction that an airplane is moving relative to the ground is called angle of climb:

The angle of climb can be defined as the angle between a horizontal plane representing the Earth's surface and the actual flight path followed by the aircraft during its ascent.

Note that the angle of climb depends on the ratio between horizontal distance traveled and the change in altitude, which is usually relative to mean sea level (I say "usually" because there is more than one way to define what "zero altitude" means).

  • Adding to @cobaltduck's comment, regarding angle of climb, what happens as per your definition when the ground elevation (difference between sea level and ground level) below the aircraft changes along the direction of travel?
    – user
    Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 12:09
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    You're right, @cobaltduck, and I've amended the answer accordingly; I've also added a reference to "mean sea level". I feel like I could expand on the latter, but I feel that concepts about geodesy and gravimetry are outside the scope of the original question. Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 14:35

You may be looking for the word attitude, which is the orientation of the airplane in all three axes (pitch, roll, and yaw). Pitch is the nose up/down angle of the plane, roll is the bank angle of the wings, and yaw is the nose left/right angle.

Note that this should not be confused with altitude, which is the height of the airplane either above sea level or above the the surface over which the aircraft is flying.

  • After pitch, I think this should come in a close second. Commented Jul 1, 2019 at 16:27
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    The example in the question referred specifically to pitch, but I'm not at all certain that the question is limited to that. Commented Jul 1, 2019 at 16:30
  • Yes, I agree. The word attitude is actually quite the best fit. Commented Jul 1, 2019 at 16:40
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    Actually, in aviation, altitude is the distance between mean sea level and an object (such as an aircraft), while height is the distance between ground level and that object, and elevation is the distance between mean sea level and ground level. Wikipedia has a pretty good illustration (not drawn to scale, though) here. All three are very much relevant in aviation, but they are used for different purposes.
    – user
    Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 12:11
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    Also not to be confused with the pilot's attitude, which determines whether you want to fly with them or not.
    – Vikki
    Commented Jul 3, 2019 at 23:40

Depending on how technical you want the word to be, you might also want to use Angle of attack. This angle is the angle of the plane relative to the fluid(air) through which it is moving. While the word is usually applied to the wings themselves, it does also apply to whole crafts. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angle_of_attack for a more complete/correct explanation.

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    I don't think AoA is relevant to the context here. A pilot pitching down would algebraically decrease the angle with the horizontal but not always necessarily decrease the AoA. Commented Jul 1, 2019 at 16:25

The direction that an aeroplane is pointing in is called its heading. However, if there is wind blowing from the side, the actual direction the plane is travelling in will be slightly or significantly different from its heading, depending how strong the wind is.

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    The heading is the left-right direction of an airplane, which is changed using the rudder pedals and turning the control yoke to the left or right. The question seems to be about the angle that is changed by pushing or pulling on the control yoke, which changes whether the tail or the nose of the airplane is higher or lower. That axis of movement is called the pitch, as mentioned in another answer. Commented Jul 1, 2019 at 13:31
  • @ToddWilcox I felt there was enough ambiguity in the question to warrant another answer.
    – CJ Dennis
    Commented Jul 1, 2019 at 13:39
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    That's reasonable. It's not clear whether the "pushing the joystick forward" part of the quote is meant to be the only direction of control the question is about, or is merely one example of the three directions of control (pitch, roll, and yaw) that an airplane has. Commented Jul 1, 2019 at 13:45
  • Given the title of the question, having this supplementary answer will help with anyone who comes here wanting to know the N/S/E/W direction rather than the up/down direction. Commented Jul 1, 2019 at 16:05

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