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VFR Training Maneuvers – Steep Turns

Steep turns are quite different from the other maneuvers learned during the Private Pilot training due to the fact that they are the only performance maneuver learned. However, there is something exhilarating about banking the airplane 45° and feeling the G-forces push you into your seat as you watch the horizon rotate around you. Let’s break down some of the most commonly asked questions regarding steep turns.


Why do we do steep turns?

Let’s start with the FAA’s definition as to why we do steep turns. We learn steep turns to develop “flight control smoothness and coordination, an awareness of the airplane’s orientation to outside references, division of attention between flight control application, and the constant need to scan for hazards” (AFH 9-2). For once a definition that actually makes some sense! You may be asking yourself what flight control smoothness and coordination means, but you’ll see that when we put the airplane into a 45° level-altitude bank there are a lot of control inputs required to make this a smooth and successful maneuver. Not enough rudder? The nose initially swings in the direction opposite the turn. Too much back pressure on the yoke? Now we are gaining altitude. Too low of a power setting? Our airspeed will start to decrease. With all that being said, we practice these because we need to get a feel for controlling the airplane and what that looks like with relation to outside references. How much rudder is required to make a smooth entry into a turn? How do we effectively balance the amount of back pressure required on the yoke to maintain altitude? What is the correct amount of power to add so that we don’t decrease airspeed? Learning steep turns helps answer these questions and being able to do them successfully will pay dividends in other parts of training/flying. It also increases your overall airmanship.


Why do we add back pressure on the yoke?

We know that there are 2 components of total lift – vertical and horizontal. As we bank the airplane, we begin to trade some of the vertical component of lift for horizontal lift which is what actually turns the airplane. When we make a level-altitude banked turn we maintain the same overall amount of total lift, but since we have decreased the amount of vertical lift, and our goal is to maintain altitude in the steep turn, we need to add back pressure to increase the AOA. This ultimately increases the amount of vertical lift. See PHAK Figure 5-34 below for reference. It is this loss of vertical lift that requires us to add back pressure when performing a successful steep turn.





Why do we add power?

Most people have heard, or will hear, their instructor tell them that as you roll into the steep turn you need to increase power ~100rpm. But why? Well, let’s piece a few things we know together. We know from above that we need to increase vertical lift and we do this by increasing back pressure. We also know from our understanding of aerodynamics that as we increase this vertical component of lift we also increase our induced drag. Therefore, if we maintain a consistent power setting and increase our induced drag, we are going to either lose altitude to maintain airspeed or we are going to maintain altitude and lose airspeed. As a result, the only way to overcome this induced drag and maintain airspeed is by increasing the power slightly.


Why do I have the opposite aileron control input while in the turn?

You may actually be turning the yoke opposite the direction of the steep turn while established in the maneuver due to something called the overbanking tendency. Overbanking tendency is a result of the airplane having negative dynamic stability in this angle of bank. Most turns that we make while flying fall under either the shallow bank category (0°-20°) or the medium bank category (20°-45°). These two categories are inherently stable, meaning that the airplane will either return to its original position if it’s a shallow bank turn or it will maintain the bank angle set if it is a medium bank turn. However, when we bank the airplane to 45° or greater, the airplane will actually want to keep banking in the direction of the bank even with neutral flight control pressure. Why does this happen? Well, as we bank the airplane, the upper wing has to travel a further distance than the bottom wing, which results in that wing moving faster than the bottom wing. We know that as we increase the speed at which the wing moves through the air we also are increasing the amount of lift that wing is producing. As a result of the upper wing creating more life than the lower wing, the airplane wants to keep banking and eventually, overbank. This overbanking tendency is why we need to use opposite aileron control pressure to stop the upper wing from wanting to over-bank and exceeding the 45° of desired bank.


Tips & Tricks

  • Be trimmed out and at a steady airspeed prior to entering the maneuver
    • You’ve got a lot going on in the maneuver, don’t make things harder on yourself by not being set up properly
  • Bug your entry heading
    • Start to level your wings ~20°-25° before your entry heading (45°/2)
  • Find a spot on the engine cowling/panel where it is slicing through the horizon at 45° and maintain that sight picture
  • The right turn requires more rudder than the left turn (due to left turning tendencies)
  • Avoid ballooning when rolling between turns by adding a little forward pressure on the elevator as you roll out of the turn
  • You know you did a successful steep turn when you hit your own wake turbulence 360° later