Difference Between Barrel Rolls And Aileron Rolls

“Do a barrel roll!” —Peppy Hare, Star Fox 64

In A Nutshell

In recent years the phrase “do a barrel roll” has secured its place as a part of our pop-culture lexicon. Usually, the phrase is used to mistakenly refer to an aileron roll. A barrel roll is an aerial maneuver wherein an airplane completes a longitudinal revolution (what we usually think of as a barrel roll) while also following a helical path (think of a plane going around the outside of a barrel, demonstrated in the above photo). An aileron roll, on the other hand, is achieved when a plane completes this revolution without changing altitude (think of a plane flying through a barrel while rolling, as seen in the straight-line path above).

The Whole Bushel

Although the term “barrel roll” has been used since at least 1917, it became known to many more people through its inclusion in the Star Fox video game series. In Star Fox 64, one of the titular character’s allies can be heard delivering the line that would later become a meme: “Do a barrel roll!” In the game, this refers to a maneuver that allows Star Fox to evade attacks by spinning his jet along its longitudinal axis.

This phrase began making its rounds on the Internet in late 2011 and the Google search engine even performs a trick when you use it to search for the phrase. The problem is that none of these examples are actually barrel rolls. They are aileron rolls.

The two maneuvers are similar in that they both require an aircraft to complete a 360° revolution horizontally. The difference between the two lies in vertical movement. In a properly executed aileron roll no change in altitude will take place and the aircraft will exit the maneuver on the same heading as it entered. A barrel roll requires the aircraft to follow a helical path while completing its sideways revolution, and it is sometimes described as a combination of a loop and a roll.

The maneuvers seen in the Star Fox series are all, despite the dialogue, aileron rolls. This is because the jets stay in a relatively fixed vertical position while spinning sideways. Even the Google web browser’s “do a barrel roll” Easter egg does not follow the correct helical path of a barrel roll. Though it has become popular visually, it seems unlikely that the aileron roll will ever become as popular in name as the often misattributed title of the barrel roll.

Show Me The Proof

Recreational Aerobatics: Mastering the Aileron Roll
Navy Flight Manuals: Rolling Scissors
International Aerobatic Club: Aerobatic Figures

  • Hillyard

    I don’t believe that any bit of knowledge is useless, perhaps just really unimportant and occasionally boring. Just saying.

    • Lisa 39

      Its definitely something that’s not likely to come up in any conversation ever.

    • Patriotic Dane

      Just like the fact that Fortune Cookies are not Chinese…

  • David Matayabas

    ‘Tis a big deal among “aviation-dorks”. I spend a lot of time ‘sharing’ my vast, useless, aviation knowledge.

  • Wids

    I’m actually a bit ashamed that I didn’t know the difference between an aileron roll and a barrel roll until now, and I worked on ILS and TACAN equipment on Malmstrom Air Force Base’s airfield back during my underwhelming Air Force years. (But in my defense, I wasn’t anywhere near to being a pilot, and the only aircraft which I typically worked around were KC-135 Stratotankers. And performing aerobatic maneuvers with a Stratotanker or any other large aircraft is NOT advised.)

    So the aircraft doesn’t climb or descend when performing an aileron roll. But what about its lateral/horizontal/sideways movement? Does that have to stay on the same axis too, or is it still an aileron roll if the aircraft veers to port or to starboard? Because I’m thinking of the air chase scene from Tron: Legacy, where the two big bad guys — CLU and Rinzler — are in small light jets chasing and shooting at the larger aircraft with the three good guys aboard. Rinzler then remembers that he’s actually Tron — one of the good guys — and in a sacrificial maneuver, performs what looks like an aileron roll with his aircraft, except that he deliberately veers hard to starboard while rolling, slamming his own light jet into CLU’s light jet and thus destroying both enemy aircraft, ending the pursuit and allowing the good guys to get away.

    So would Rinzler’s maneuver still be an aileron roll, even though he veered to one side while executing it?