Steep Turns

Steep turns consist of single to multiple 360° and 720° turns, in either or both directions, using a bank angle between 45° and 60°. The objective of the steep turn is to develop a pilot’s skill in flight control smoothness and coordination, an awareness of the airplane’s orientation to outside references, division of attention between flight control applications, and the constant need to scan for hazards and other traffic in the area. [Figure 1]

Airplane Performance Maneuvers
Figure 1. Steep turns
While the fundamental concepts of all turns are the same, when steep turns are first demonstrated and performed, the pilot will be exposed to:

  1. Higher G-forces
  2. The airplane’s inherent overbanking tendency
  3. Significant loss of the vertical component of lift when the wings are steeply banked
  4. Substantial pitch control pressures
  5. The need for increased additional power to maintain altitude at a constant airspeed during the turn

When banking an airplane for a level turn, the total lift divides into vertical and horizontal components of lift. In order to maintain altitude at a constant airspeed, the pilot increases the angle of attack (AOA) to ensure that the vertical component of lift is sufficient to maintain altitude. The pilot adds power as needed to maintain airspeed. For a steep turn, as in any level turn, the horizontal component of lift provides the necessary force to turn the airplane. Regardless of the airspeed or airplane, for a given bank angle in a level altitude turn, the same load factor will always be produced. The load factor is the vector addition of gravity and centrifugal force. When the bank becomes steep as in a level altitude 45° banked turn, the resulting load factor is 1.41. In a level altitude 60° banked turn, the resulting load factor is 2.0. To put this in perspective, with a load factor of 2.0, the effective weight of the aircraft (and its occupants) doubles. Pilots may have difficulty with orientation and movement when first experiencing these forces. Pilots should also understand that load factors increase dramatically during a level turn beyond 60° of bank. Note that the design of a standard category general aviation airplane accommodates a load factor up to 3.8. A level turn using 75° of bank exceeds that limit.Because of higher load factors, steep turns should be performed at an airspeed that does not exceed the airplane’s design maneuvering speed (VA) or operating maneuvering speed (VO). Maximum turning performance for a given speed is accomplished when an airplane has a high angle of bank. Each airplane’s level turning performance is limited by structural and aerodynamic design, as well as available power. The airplane’s limiting load factor determines the maximum bank angle that can be maintained in level flight without exceeding the airplane’s structural limitations or stalling. As the load factor increases, so does the stalling speed. For example, if an airplane stalls in level flight at 50 knots, it will stall at 60 knots in a 45° steep turn while maintaining altitude. It will stall at 70 knots if the bank is increased to 60°. Stalling speed increases at the square root of the load factor. As the bank angle increases in level flight, the margin between stalling speed and maneuvering speed decreases. At speeds at or below VA or VO, the airplane will stall before exceeding the design load limit.

In addition to the increased load factors, the airplane will exhibit what is called “overbanking tendency” as previously discussed in Basic Flight Maneuvers section. In most flight maneuvers, bank angles are shallow enough that the airplane exhibits positive or neutral stability about the longitudinal axis. However, as bank angles steepen, the airplane will continue rolling in the direction of the bank unless deliberate and opposite aileron pressure is held. Pilots should also be mindful of the various left-turning tendencies, such as P-factor, which require effective rudder/aileron coordination. While performing a steep turn, a significant component of yaw is experienced as motion away from and toward the earth’s surface, which may seem confusing when first experienced.

Before starting any practice maneuver, the pilot ensures that the area is clear of air traffic and other hazards. Further, distant references should be chosen to allow the pilot to assess when to begin rollout from the turn. After establishing the manufacturer’s recommended entry speed, VA, or VO, as applicable, the airplane should be smoothly rolled into a predetermined bank angle between 45° and 60°. As the bank angle is being established, generally prior to 30° of bank, elevator back pressure should be smoothly applied to increase the AOA and power should be added. Pilots should keep in mind that as the AOA increases, so does drag, and additional power allows the airplane to maintain airspeed. After the selected bank angle has been reached, the pilot will find that considerable force is required on the elevator control to hold the airplane in level flight.

The certification testing standards do not specify trim requirements for a steep turn. The decision whether to use trim depends on the airplane characteristics, speed of the trim system, and preference of the instructor and learner. As the bank angle transitions from medium to steep, increasing elevator-up trim and smoothly increasing engine power to that required for the turn removes some or all of the control forces required to maintain a higher angle of attack. However, if trim is used, pilots should not forget to remove both the trim and power inputs as the maneuver is completed.Maintaining bank angle, altitude, and orientation requires an awareness of the relative position of the horizon to the nose and the wings. The pilot who references the aircraft’s attitude by observing only the nose will have difficulty maintaining altitude. A pilot who observes both the nose and the wings relative to the horizon is likely able to maintain altitude within performance standards. Altitude deviations are primary errors exhibited in the execution of steep turns. 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 pilot can recover from such an altitude loss by first reducing the angle of bank with coordinated use of opposite aileron and rudder and then increasing the pitch attitude by increasing elevator back pressure. Attempting to recover from an excessively nose-low, steep bank condition by using only the elevator causes a steepening of the bank and puts unnecessary stress on the airplane.

The rollout from the steep turn should be timed so that the wings reach level flight when the airplane is on the heading from which the maneuver was started. A good rule of thumb is to begin the rollout at ½ the number of degrees of bank prior to reaching the terminating heading. For example, if a right steep turn was begun on a heading of 270° and if the bank angle is 60°, the pilot should begin the rollout 30° prior or at a heading of 240°. While the rollout is being made, elevator back pressure, trim (if used), and power should be gradually reduced, as necessary, to maintain the altitude and airspeed.

Common errors when performing steep turns are:

  1. Not clearing the area
  2. Inadequate pitch control on entry or rollout
  3. Gaining or losing altitude
  4. Failure to maintain constant bank angle
  5. Poor flight control coordination
  6. Ineffective use of trim
  7. Ineffective use of power
  8. Inadequate airspeed control
  9. Becoming disoriented
  10. Performing by reference to the flight instruments rather than visual references
  11. Failure to scan for other traffic during the maneuver
  12. Attempting to start recovery prematurely
  13. Failure to stop the turn on the designated heading

Steep Spiral

The objective of the steep spiral is to provide a flight maneuver for rapidly dissipating substantial amounts of altitude while remaining over a selected spot. This maneuver may be useful during an emergency landing. A steep spiral is a gliding turn wherein the pilot maintains a constant radius around a surface-based reference point—similar to the turns around a point maneuver, but in this case the airplane is rapidly descending. The maneuver consists of the completion of at least three 360° turns [Figure 2], and should begin at sufficient altitude such that the maneuver concludes no lower than 1,500 feet above ground level (AGL). Note that while there are similarities between a steep spiral and an emergency descent, the reasons for using the two maneuvers may differ, and the airspeed and configuration are usually different.

Airplane Performance Maneuvers
Figure 2. Steep spiral
The steep spiral is initiated by properly clearing the airspace for air traffic and hazards. In general, the throttle is closed to idle, carburetor heat is applied if equipped, and gliding speed is established. Once the proper airspeed is attained, the pitch should be lowered and the airplane rolled to the desired bank angle as the reference point is reached. The pilot should consider the distance from the reference point since that establishes the turning radius, and the steepest bank should not exceed 60°. The gliding spiral should be a turn of constant radius while maintaining the airplane’s position relative to the reference. This can only be accomplished by proper correction for wind drift by steepening the bank on downwind headings and shallowing the bank on upwind headings. During the steep spiral, the pilot should continually correct for any changes in wind direction and velocity to maintain a constant radius.Operating the engine at idle speed for any prolonged period during the glide may result in excessive engine cooling, spark plug fouling, or carburetor ice. To assist in avoiding these issues, the throttle should be periodically advanced and sustained for a few seconds. Monitoring cylinder head temperature gauges, if available, provides a pilot with additional information on engine cooling. When advancing the throttle, the pitch attitude should be adjusted to maintain a constant airspeed and, preferably, this should be done when headed into the wind.

Maintaining a constant airspeed throughout the maneuver is an important skill for a pilot to develop. This is necessary because the airspeed tends to fluctuate as the bank angle is changed throughout the maneuver. The pilot should anticipate pitch corrections as the bank angle is varied throughout the maneuver. During practice of the maneuver, the pilot should execute at least three turns and roll out toward a definite object or on a specific heading. To make the exercise more challenging, the pilot rolls out on a heading perpendicular to or directly into the wind rather toward a specific object. This ability would be a particularly useful skill in the event of an actual emergency. In addition, noting the altitude lost during each revolution would help the pilot determine when to roll out in an actual emergency so as not to be too high or too low to make a safe approach. During rollout, the smooth and accurate application of the flight controls allow the airplane to recover to a wings-level glide with no change in airspeed. Recovering to normal cruise flight would proceed after the establishment of a wings-level glide.Common errors when performing steep spirals are:

  1. Not clearing the area
  2. Inadequate pitch control on entry or rollout
  3. Not correcting the bank angle to compensate for wind
  4. Poor flight control coordination
  5. Ineffective use of trim
  6. Inadequate airspeed control
  7. Becoming disoriented
  8. Performing by reference to the flight instruments rather than visual references
  9. Not scanning for other traffic during the maneuver
  10. Not completing the turn on the designated heading or reference