A turn is initiated by banking the wings in the desired direction of the turn through the pilot’s use of the aileron flight controls. Left aileron flight control pressure causes the left wing to lower in relation to the pilot. Right aileron flight control pressure causes the right wing to lower in relation to the pilot. In other words, to turn left, the pilot lowers the left wing with aileron by left stick. To turn right, the pilot lowers the right wing with right stick. Depending on bank angle and airplane engineering, at many bank angles, the airplane will continue to turn with ailerons neutralized. The sequence could be as follows:

  1. Bank the airplane, adding either enough power or pitching up to compensate for the loss of vertical lift.
  2. Neutralize controls as necessary to stop bank from increasing and hold desired bank angle.
  3. Use the opposite stick (aileron) to return airplane to level.
  4. Neutralize the ailerons (along with either power or pitch reduction) for level flight. [Figure 1]
Airplane Level turn to the left
Figure 1. Level turn to the left

A turn is the result of the following:

  • The ailerons bank the wings and determine the rate of turn for a given airspeed. Lift is divided into both vertical and horizontal lift components as a result of the bank. The horizontal component of lift moves the airplane toward the banked direction.
  • The elevator pitches the nose of the airplane up or down in relation to the pilot and perpendicular to the wings. If the pilot does not add power, and there is sufficient airspeed margin, the pilot needs to slightly increase the pitch to increase wing lift enough to replace the wing lift being diverted into turning force so as to maintain the current altitude.
  • The vertical fin on an airplane does not produce lift. Rather the vertical fin on an airplane is a stabilizing surface and produces no lift if the airplane is flying straight ahead. The vertical fin’s purpose is to keep the aft end of the airplane behind the front end.
  • The throttle provides thrust, which may be used for airspeed control and to vary the radius of the turn.
  • The pilot uses the rudder to offset any adverse yaw developed by wing’s differential lift and the engine/propeller. The rudder does not turn the airplane. The rudder is used to maintain coordinated flight.

For purposes of this discussion, turns are divided into three classes: shallow, medium, and steep.

  • Shallow turns—bank angle is approximately 20° or less. This shallow bank is such that the inherent lateral stability of the airplane slowly levels the wings unless aileron pressure in the desired direction of bank is held by the pilot to maintain the bank angle.
  • Medium turns—result from a degree of bank between approximately 20° and 45°. At medium bank angles, the airplane’s inherent lateral stability does not return the wings to level flight. As a result, the airplane tends to remain at a constant bank angle without any flight control pressure held by the pilot. The pilot neutralizes the aileron flight control pressure to maintain the bank.
  • Steep turns—result from a degree of bank of approximately 45° or more. The airplane continues in the direction of the bank even with neutral flight controls unless the pilot provides opposite flight control aileron pressure to prevent the airplane from overbanking. The actual amount of opposite flight control pressure used depends on various factors, such as bank angle and airspeed.

When an airplane is flying straight and level, the total lift is acting perpendicular to the wings and to the earth. As the airplane is banked into a turn, total lift is the resultant of two components: vertical and horizontal. [Figure 2] The vertical lift component continues to act perpendicular to the earth and opposes gravity. The horizontal lift component acts parallel to the earth’s surface opposing centrifugal force. These two lift components act at right angles to each other, causing the resultant total lifting force to act perpendicular to the banked wing of the airplane. It is the horizontal lift component that begins to turn the airplane and not the rudder.

When the airplane is banked into a turn, total lift is the resultant of two components: vertical and horizontal
Figure 2. When the airplane is banked into a turn, total lift is the resultant of two components: vertical and horizontal

In constant altitude, constant airspeed turns, it is necessary to increase the AOA of the wing when rolling into the turn by increasing back pressure on the elevator, as well to add power countering the loss of speed due to increased drag. This is required because total lift has divided into vertical and horizontal components of lift. In order to maintain altitude, the total lift (since total lift acts perpendicular to the wing) needs to be increased to meet the vertical component of lift requirements (to balance weight and load factor) for level flight.

The purpose of the rudder in a turn is to coordinate the turn. As lift increases, so does drag. When the pilot deflects the ailerons to bank the airplane, both lift and drag are increased on the rising wing and, simultaneously, lift and drag are decreased on the lowering wing. [Figure 3]

The rudder opposes adverse yaw to help coordinate the turn
Figure 3. The rudder opposes adverse yaw to help coordinate the turn

This increased drag on the rising wing and decreased drag on the lowering wing results in the airplane yawing opposite to the direction of turn. To counteract this adverse yaw, rudder pressure is applied simultaneously with the aileron deflection in the desired direction of turn. This action is required to produce a coordinated turn. Coordinated flight is an important part of airplane control. Situations can develop when a pilot maintains certain uncoordinated flight control deflections, which create the potential for a spin. This is especially hazardous when operating at low altitudes, such as when operating in the airport traffic pattern.

During uncoordinated flight, the pilot may feel that they are being pushed sideways toward the outside or inside of the turn. [Figure 4] The pilot feels pressed toward the outside of a turn during a skid and feels pressed toward the inside of a turn during a slip. The ability to sense a skid or slip is developed over time and as the “feel” of flying develops, a pilot should become highly sensitive to a slip or skid without undue reliance on the flight instruments.

Indications of airplane slip and skid
Figure 4. Indications of a slip and skid

Turn Radius

To understand the relationship between airspeed, bank, and radius of turn, it should be noted that the rate of turn at any given true airspeed depends on the horizontal lift component. The horizontal lift component varies in proportion to the amount of bank. Therefore, the rate of turn at a given airspeed increases as the angle of bank is increased. On the other hand, when a turn is made at a higher airspeed at a given bank angle, the inertia is greater and the horizontal lift component required for the turn is greater, causing the turning rate to become slower. [Figure 5] Therefore, at a given angle of bank, a higher airspeed makes the radius of turn larger because the airplane turns at a slower rate.

Angle of bank and airspeed regulate rate and radius of turn
Figure 5. Angle of bank and airspeed regulate rate and radius of turn

As the radius of the turn becomes smaller, a significant difference develops between the airspeed of the inside wing and the airspeed of the outside wing. The wing on the outside of the turn travels a longer path than the inside wing, yet both complete their respective paths in the same unit of time.

Therefore, the outside wing travels at a faster airspeed than the inside wing and, as a result, it develops more lift. This creates an overbanking tendency that needs to be controlled by the use of opposite aileron when the desired bank angle is reached. [Figure 6] Because the outboard wing is developing more lift, it also produces more drag. The drag causes a slight slip during steep turns that should be corrected by use of the rudder.

airplane overbanking tendency
Figure 6. Overbanking tendency

Establishing a Turn

On most light single-engine airplanes, the top surface of the engine cowling is fairly flat, and its horizontal surface to the natural horizon provides a reasonable indication for initially setting the degree of bank angle. [Figure 7] The pilot should then crosscheck the flight instruments to verify that the correct bank angle has been achieved. Information obtained from the attitude indicator shows the angle of the wing in relation to the horizon.

Visual reference for angle of bank of airplane
Figure 7. Visual reference for angle of bank

The pilot’s seating position in the airplane is important as it affects the interpretation of outside visual references. A common problem is that a pilot may lean away from the turn in an attempt to remain in an upright position in relation to the horizon. This should be corrected immediately if the pilot is to properly learn to use visual references. [Figure 8]

Correct and incorrect posture while seated in the airplane
Figure 8. Correct and incorrect posture while seated in the airplane

Because most airplanes have side-by-side seating, a pilot does not sit on the airplane’s longitudinal axis, which is where the airplane rotates in roll. The pilot sits slightly off to one side, typically the left, of the longitudinal axis. Due to parallax error, this makes the nose of the airplane appear to rise when making a left turn (due to pilot lowering in relation to the longitudinal axis) and the nose of the airplane appear to descend when making right turns (due to pilot elevating in relation to the longitudinal axis). [Figure 9]

airplane parallax view
Figure 9. Parallax view

Beginning pilots should not use large aileron and rudder control inputs. This is because large control inputs produce rapid roll rates and allow little time for the pilot to evaluate and make corrections. Smaller flight control inputs result in slower roll rates and provide for more time to accurately complete the necessary pitch and bank corrections.

Some additional considerations for initiating turns are the following:

  • If the airplane’s nose starts to move before the bank starts, the rudder is being applied too soon.
  • If the bank starts before the nose starts turning or the nose moves in the opposite direction, the rudder is being applied too late.
  • If the nose moves up or down when entering a bank, excessive or insufficient elevator back pressure is being applied.

After the bank has been established, all flight control pressures applied to the ailerons and rudder may be relaxed or adjusted, depending on the established bank angle, to compensate for the airplane’s inherent stability or overbanking tendencies. The airplane should remain at the desired bank angle with the proper application of aileron pressure. If the desired bank angle is shallow, the pilot needs to maintain a small amount of aileron pressure into the direction of bank including rudder to compensate for yaw effects. For medium bank angles, the ailerons and rudder should be neutralized. Steep bank angles require opposite aileron and rudder to prevent the bank from steepening.

Back pressure on the elevator should not be relaxed as the vertical component of lift should be maintained if altitude is to be maintained. Throughout the turn, the pilot should reference the natural horizon, scan for aircraft traffic, and occasionally crosscheck the flight instruments to verify performance. A reduction in airspeed is the result of increased drag but is generally not significant for shallow bank angles. In steeper turns, additional power may be required to maintain airspeed. If altitude is not being maintained during the turn, the pitch attitude should be corrected in relation to the natural horizon and cross-checked with the flight instruments to verify performance.

Steep turns require accurate, smooth, and timely flight control inputs. Minor corrections for pitch attitude are accomplished with proportional elevator back pressure while the bank angle is held constant with the ailerons. However, during steep turns, it is not uncommon for a pilot to allow the nose to get excessively low resulting in a significant loss in altitude in a very short period of time. The recovery sequence requires that the pilot first reduce the angle of bank with coordinated use of opposite aileron and rudder and then increase the pitch attitude by increasing elevator back pressure.

If recovery from an excessively nose-low, steep bank condition is attempted by use of the elevator only, it only causes a steepening of the bank and unnecessary stress on the airplane. Steep turn performance can be improved by an appropriate application of power to overcome the increase in drag. Depending on the purpose of a steep turn and the magnitude of control force needed, trimming additional elevator back pressure as the bank angle goes beyond 30° may assist the pilot during the turn.

Since the airplane continues turning as long as there is any bank, the rollout from the turn should be started before reaching the desired heading. The amount of lead required to rollout on the desired heading depends on the degree of bank used in the turn. A rule of thumb is to lead by one-half the angle of bank. For example, if the bank is 30°, lead the rollout by 15°. The rollout from a turn is similar to the roll-in except the flight controls are applied in the opposite direction. Aileron and rudder are applied in the direction of the rollout or toward the high wing.

As the angle of bank decreases, the elevator pressure should be relaxed as necessary to maintain altitude. As the wings become level, the flight control pressures should be smoothly relaxed so that the controls are neutralized as the airplane returns to straight-and-level flight. If trim was used, such as during a steep turn, forward elevator pressure may be required until the trim can be adjusted. As the rollout is being completed, attention should be given to outside visual references, as well as the flight instruments to determine that the wings are being leveled and the turn stopped.

Because the elevator and ailerons are on one control, practice is required to ensure that only the intended pressure is applied to the intended flight control. For example, a beginner pilot is likely to unintentionally add pressure to the pitch control when the only bank was intended. This cross-coupling may be diminished or enhanced by the design of the flight controls; however, practice is the appropriate measure for smooth, precise, and accurate flight control inputs.

For example, diving when turning right and climbing when turning left in airplanes is common with stick controls, because the arm tends to rotate from the elbow joint, which induces a secondary arc control motion if the pilot is not extremely careful. Likewise, lowering the nose is likely to induce a right turn, and raising the nose to climb tends to induce a left turn. These actions would apply for a pilot using the right hand to move the stick. Airplanes with a control wheel may be less prone to these inadvertent actions, depending on control positions and pilot seating. In any case, the pilot should retain the proper sight picture of the nose following the horizon, whether up, down, left, or right and isolate undesired motion.

Common errors in level turns are:

  1. Failure to adequately clear in the direction of turn for aircraft traffic.
  2. Gaining or losing altitude during the turn.
  3. Not holding the desired bank angle constant.
  4. Attempting to execute the turn solely by instrument reference.
  5. Leaning away from the direction of the turn while seated.
  6. Insufficient feel for the airplane as evidenced by the inability to detect slips or skids without flight instruments.
  7. Attempting to maintain a constant bank angle by referencing only the airplane’s nose.
  8. Making skidding flat turns to avoid banking the airplane.
  9. Holding excessive rudder in the direction of turn.
  10. Gaining proficiency in turns in only one direction.
  11. Failure to coordinate the controls.