Forces in Turns

If an aircraft were viewed in straight-and-level flight from the front [Figure 1], and if the forces acting on the aircraft could be seen, lift and weight would be apparent: two forces. If the aircraft were in a bank it would be apparent that lift did not act directly opposite to the weight, rather it now acts in the direction of the bank. A basic truth about turns is that when the aircraft banks, lift acts inward toward the center of the turn, perpendicular to the lateral axis as well as upward.
Aerodynamic Forces in Flight Maneuvers
Figure 1. Forces during normal, coordinated turn at constant altitude
Newton’s First Law of Motion, the Law of Inertia, states that an object at rest or moving in a straight line remains at rest or continues to move in a straight line until acted on by some other force. An aircraft, like any moving object, requires a sideward force to make it turn. In a normal turn, this force is supplied by banking the aircraft so that lift is exerted inward, as well as upward. The force of lift during a turn is separated into two components at right angles to each other. One component, which acts vertically and opposite to the weight (gravity), is called the “vertical component of lift.” The other, which acts horizontally toward the center of the turn, is called the “horizontal component of lift” or centripetal force. The horizontal component of lift is the force that pulls the aircraft from a straight flight path to make it turn. Centrifugal force is the “equal and opposite reaction” of the aircraft to the change in direction and acts equal and opposite to the horizontal component of lift. This explains why, in a correctly executed turn, the force that turns the aircraft is not supplied by the rudder. The rudder is used to correct any deviation between the straight track of the nose and tail of the aircraft into the relative wind. A good turn is one in which the nose and tail of the aircraft track along the same path. If no rudder is used in a turn, the nose of the aircraft yaws to the outside of the turn. The rudder is used rolling into the turn to bring the nose back in line with the relative wind. Once in the turn, the rudder should not be needed.

An aircraft is not steered like a boat or an automobile. In order for an aircraft to turn, it must be banked. If it is not banked, there is no force available to cause it to deviate from a straight flight path. Conversely, when an aircraft is banked, it turns provided it is not slipping to the inside of the turn. Good directional control is based on the fact that the aircraft attempts to turn whenever it is banked. Pilots should keep this fact in mind when attempting to hold the aircraft in straight-and-level flight.
Merely banking the aircraft into a turn produces no change in the total amount of lift developed. Since the lift during the bank is divided into vertical and horizontal components, the amount of lift opposing gravity and supporting the aircraft’s weight is reduced. Consequently, the aircraft loses altitude unless additional lift is created. This is done by increasing the AOA until the vertical component of lift is again equal to the weight. Since the vertical component of lift decreases as the bank angle increases, the AOA must be progressively increased to produce sufficient vertical lift to support the aircraft’s weight. An important fact for pilots to remember when making constant altitude turns is that the vertical component of lift must be equal to the weight to maintain altitude.
At a given airspeed, the rate at which an aircraft turns depends upon the magnitude of the horizontal component of lift. It is found that the horizontal component of lift is proportional to the angle of bank—that is, it increases or decreases respectively as the angle of bank increases or decreases. As the angle of bank is increased, the horizontal component of lift increases, thereby increasing the rate of turn (ROT). Consequently, at any given airspeed, the ROT can be controlled by adjusting the angle of bank.
To provide a vertical component of lift sufficient to hold altitude in a level turn, an increase in the AOA is required. Since the drag of the airfoil is directly proportional to its AOA, induced drag increases as the lift is increased. This, in turn, causes a loss of airspeed in proportion to the angle of bank. A small angle of bank results in a small reduction in airspeed while a large angle of bank results in a large reduction in airspeed. Additional thrust (power) must be applied to prevent a reduction in airspeed in level turns. The required amount of additional thrust is proportional to the angle of bank.
To compensate for added lift, which would result if the airspeed were increased during a turn, the AOA must be decreased, or the angle of bank increased, if a constant altitude is to be maintained. If the angle of bank is held constant and the AOA decreased, the ROT decreases. In order to maintain a constant ROT as the airspeed is increased, the AOA must remain constant and the angle of bank increased.
An increase in airspeed results in an increase of the turn radius, and centrifugal force is directly proportional to the radius of the turn. In a correctly executed turn, the horizontal component of lift must be exactly equal and opposite to the centrifugal force. As the airspeed is increased in a constant-rate level turn, the radius of the turn increases. This increase in the radius of turn causes an increase in the centrifugal force, which must be balanced by an increase in the horizontal component of lift, which can only be increased by increasing the angle of bank.
In a slipping turn, the aircraft is not turning at the rate appropriate to the bank being used, since the aircraft is yawed toward the outside of the turning flight path. The aircraft is banked too much for the ROT, so the horizontal lift component is greater than the centrifugal force. [Figure 2] Equilibrium between the horizontal lift component and centrifugal force is reestablished by either decreasing the bank, increasing the ROT, or a combination of the two changes.
Aerodynamic Forces in Flight Maneuvers
Figure 2. Normal, slipping, and skidding turns at a constant altitude
A skidding turn results from an excess of centrifugal force over the horizontal lift component, pulling the aircraft toward the outside of the turn. The ROT is too great for the angle of bank. Correction of a skidding turn thus involves a reduction in the ROT, an increase in bank, or a combination of the two changes.
To maintain a given ROT, the angle of bank must be varied with the airspeed. This becomes particularly important in high-speed aircraft. For instance, at 400 miles per hour (mph), an aircraft must be banked approximately 44° to execute a standard-rate turn (3° per second). At this angle of bank, only about 79 percent of the lift of the aircraft comprises the vertical component of the lift. This causes a loss of altitude unless the AOA is increased sufficiently to compensate for the loss of vertical lift.

Forces in Climbs

For all practical purposes, the wing’s lift in a steady state normal climb is the same as it is in a steady level flight at the same airspeed. Although the aircraft’s flight path changed when the climb was established, the AOA of the wing with respect to the inclined flight path reverts to practically the same values, as does the lift. There is an initial momentary change as shown in Figure 3. During the transition from straight-and-level flight to a climb, a change in lift occurs when back elevator pressure is first applied. Raising the aircraft’s nose increases the AOA and momentarily increases the lift. Lift at this moment is now greater than weight and starts the aircraft climbing. After the flight path is stabilized on the upward incline, the AOA and lift again revert to about the level flight values.
Aerodynamic Forces in Flight Maneuvers
Figure 3. Changes in lift during climb entry
If the climb is entered with no change in power setting, the airspeed gradually diminishes because the thrust required to maintain a given airspeed in level flight is insufficient to maintain the same airspeed in a climb. When the flight path is inclined upward, a component of the aircraft’s weight acts in the same direction as, and parallel to, the total drag of the aircraft, thereby increasing the total effective drag. Consequently, the total effective drag is greater than the power, and the airspeed decreases. The reduction in airspeed gradually results in a corresponding decrease in drag until the total drag (including the component of weight acting in the same direction) equals the thrust. [Figure 4] Due to momentum, the change in airspeed is gradual, varying considerably with differences in aircraft size, weight, total drag, and other factors. Consequently, the total effective drag is greater than the thrust, and the airspeed decreases.
Aerodynamic Forces in Flight Maneuvers
Figure 4. Changes in speed during climb entry
Generally, the forces of thrust and drag, and lift and weight, again become balanced when the airspeed stabilizes but at a value lower than in straight-and-level flight at the same power setting. Since the aircraft’s weight is acting not only downward but rearward with drag while in a climb, additional power is required to maintain the same airspeed as in level flight. The amount of power depends on the angle of climb. When the climb is established steep enough that there is insufficient power available, a slower speed results.
The thrust required for a stabilized climb equals drag plus a percentage of weight dependent on the angle of climb. For example, a 10° climb would require thrust to equal drag plus 17 percent of weight. To climb straight up would require thrust to equal all of weight and drag. Therefore, the angle of climb for climb performance is dependent on the amount of excess thrust available to overcome a portion of weight. Note that aircraft are able to sustain a climb due to excess thrust. When the excess thrust is gone, the aircraft is no longer able to climb. At this point, the aircraft has reached its “absolute ceiling.”

Forces in Descents

As in climbs, the forces that act on the aircraft go through definite changes when a descent is entered from straightand-level flight. For the following example, the aircraft is descending at the same power as used in straight-andlevel flight.
As forward pressure is applied to the control yoke to initiate the descent, the AOA is decreased momentarily. Initially, the momentum of the aircraft causes the aircraft to briefly continue along the same flight path. For this instant, the AOA decreases causing the total lift to decrease. With weight now being greater than lift, the aircraft begins to descend. At the same time, the flight path goes from level to a descending flight path. Do not confuse a reduction in lift with the inability to generate sufficient lift to maintain level flight. The flight path is being manipulated with available thrust in reserve and with the elevator.
To descend at the same airspeed as used in straight-andlevel flight, the power must be reduced as the descent is entered. Entering the descent, the component of weight acting forward along the flight path increases as the angle of descent increases and, conversely, when leveling off, the component of weight acting along the flight path decreases as the angle of descent decreases.