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Steep Turns

Flight Instructors refer to steep turns as a “performance maneuver,” meaning it is a maneuver that teaches pilots how to control the aircraft in far more demanding situations than straight and level flight. Pilots explore broader parts of the aircraft’s flight envelope while learning to plan and manage complex tasks. Steep turns require pilots to complete 360° turns at steep bank angles while maintaining altitude, airspeed, coordination, and orientation throughout the turns. I have collected some of the most common errors experienced by pilots new to steep turns and provided some tips to help you master them.

Omitting Clearing Turns

Before any maneuver, you must clear the area by turning to scan for traffic all around you. Your school or instructor may have their own clearing procedure, but a commonly accepted standard is to complete either a single 180° turn or a 90° turn in one direction followed by a 90° turn back to the original heading.

Altitude Deviations During Entry and Rollout

Entering and rolling out of steep turns requires significant changes in back pressure on the control wheel/stick. As such the very beginning and end of a steep turn can be the trickiest parts. I have had many “perfect” turns ruined by the sudden balloon in altitude on rollout or turns that never had a chance because I lost a bunch of altitude right at the entry. Here’s how to squash these annoying errors messing up your great steep turns:

Entry – As you smoothly roll into the turn increase back pressure to keep the nose from falling below the horizon. As you reach steeper banks you’ll need to increase back pressure more quickly. The sight picture for pitch in the left and right turns will look different, so you need to develop a feel for it. Expect substantial back pressure to be required as you exceed 30 degrees of bank.

Roll Out – Here we have the opposite issue: We’ve been holding all this nose-up back pressure the entire turn and may have additional nose-up trim to help us. As we roll out we have to reduce back pressure substantially as bank decreases. In a steep turn the wing produces much more lift than is required for straight and level flight. You must smoothly reduce the angle of attack to reduce this lift as you roll out. The pilot may feel they need to actively apply forward pressure and “push” the control wheel/stick forward.

Altitude Deviations During Turn

Once established in the steep turn, altitude deviations generally result from holding more or less pitch than is required. Once you know the proper sight picture for steep turns in your airplane, this becomes a reference point for the pitch attitude of the aircraft.

Correcting a Climb – Reverse climbs by reducing back pressure on the elevator control and allow the pitch attitude to decrease. A little goes a long way here. Make small corrections to climbs during established turns.

Correcting a Descent – The aircraft’s over-banking tendency complicates correcting a descent. Simply increasing back pressure in a steep turn causes the airplane to roll to a steeper bank angle. As you pull back on the control wheel/stick you must also apply aileron opposite the turn. Reducing bank slightly before increasing back pressure eases the task.

Excessive Bank Variations

The bank tolerance on steep turns is a little tighter than in other maneuvers. The Private Pilot and Commercial Pilot ACS both allow ± 5° of bank. Here again, developing a proper site picture of what a 45° bank (50° for commercial pilot) looks like. In a steep turn the over-banking tendency tries to drive the aircraft to steeper bank angles. You will need some opposite aileron input (e.g. left aileron pressure during a right steep turn) to control this tendency.   As stated above, reducing bank slightly helps while trying to arrest a descent, just use caution not to reduce bank too much.

Poor Rudder Coordination

During my flight instructor checkride the examiner asked me to evaluate him as he proceeded to fly a “perfect” steep turn. He nailed the exact airspeed, bank angle, and altitude throughout the turns, but intentionally flew with the slip-skid indicator a full ball off-center. With everything going on in a steep turn its easy to forget about coordination of the rudder. Two things to watch here: First on roll in and roll out, rudder pressure in the direction of roll is necessary to correct for adverse aileron yaw. The faster the roll, the more rudder pressure is needed. Second, avoid slipping or skidding during the turn.  As you develop a feel for this maneuver the “ball” slip-skid indicator helps tremendously.

Loss of Airspeed During Turn

To maintain altitude during a steep turn, pilots must increase the angle of attack of the wing. This increases lift as well as induced drag which will slow the aircraft down. Increase engine power during the roll into the turn and adjust as necessary to maintain airspeed. Adding power as the airplane rolls through 30° of bank works well in many aircraft. Remember to reduce power as you roll out of the maneuver as well.

Keep in mind the aircraft stalls at higher airspeeds as the load factor increases in steep turns. In a 45° bank level turn, stall speed increases 18%. This increased stall speed and loss of airspeed during the turn reduce your stall safety margin and could lead to an accelerated stall (stalling at a higher airspeed than the normal 1G stall speed).  So maintaining the airspeed is an important component of the maneuver.

Instrument Fixation

As with all non-instrument maneuvers, steep turns are best done using outside visual references. Instruments should be referenced periodically to identify errors and trends, but pilots should look outside the vast majority of the time. Most commonly pilots fixate on the attitude indicator or altimeter during steep turns. Instead, make quick references to necessary instruments and return to the sight picture outside to make control inputs.

Rolling Out on the Wrong Heading

Steep turns should be 360° in each direction. In other words, each turn should begin and end on the same heading. Pilots may lose track of their progress through the turn and roll out early or late. Several tools help with orientation. Note your entry heading on the DG or HSI; set the heading bug if you have one. Each 90° of turn, verbalize your progress through the turn (e.g. “¼,” “½,” etc…).   Pick prominent reference points outside the aircraft to maintain situational awareness. If you fly in an area where roads are laid out on a north-south/east-west grid, these work very well. ACS tolerance for roll out heading ±10° for both Private and Commercial Pilots.

Steep turns are a challenging and fun maneuver. Hopefully these tips will help you master them during your training. What things have you learned while performing steep turns? Let me know in the comments below. For more information on steep turns, reference chapter 9 of the FAA Airplane Flying Handbook.

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