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Steep Turns

This required maneuver may be the most fun, too

By Dave Wilkerson

For many pilots, steep turns are a high point in learning flight maneuvers. And why not? This officially sanctioned moment of fighter pilot fantasy adds a little spice and noticeable G-force to the training routine. The FAA outlines a specific sequence to accomplish steep turns, and your examiner judges your performance based on that sequence. In the private pilot practical test standards (PTS) the steep turn has 6 objectives—you must fulfill them all on the check ride. More about those objectives in a moment.

Because steep turns increase load factors, pilots should know what their airplane's flight manual or pilot's operating handbook (POH) says about performing them. In addition to the flight manual or POH, the PTS expects you to be familiar with FAA-H-8083-3, the Airplane Flying Handbook. The Handbook's discussion of steep turns starts with why we do them. Your examiner might not ask you why we chase our tails, but he or she will monitor your smoothness, coordination, orientation, division of attention, and control techniques as you do it. Expect questions about aerodynamics. You must be aware that stall speed increases with a steepening bank.

The task's first objective regards your knowledge of the elements related to steep turns. Your examiner is not looking for mere rote repetition of bank angles and airspeeds. Depending on the certificate you are seeking, the examiner may simply ask you to explain some of the elements relating to steep turns or very specific questions such as, "What factors limit an airplane's turning performance?" Some examiners have had applicants say that they cannot bank more than 30 degrees because of airplane limitations. Aside from the PTS requiring an airplane capable of performing all listed operations, you have a responsibility to know that your airplane meets the requirement.

The Airplane Flying Handbook's illustration of a steep turn can be misleading. Figure 6-14 shows the maneuver accurately, but its grid-patterned surface allows some the mistaken impression that the steep turn is a ground reference maneuver. It is not. Examiners occasionally see applicants vainly trying to infuse turn-around-a-point elements into steep turns. A steep turn is a performance maneuver, having little relationship to the surface.

Of course, it's important that you perform the maneuver at a safe altitude. Remember that stall speed increases with load factor. Inadvertent stalls at low altitudes rarely impress passengers or examiners, and steep turns poorly performed invite that excitement. This is one of the best reasons for the altitude requirement. You may begin the maneuver higher, if you wish.

One concern not mentioned in the steep turn's list of objectives is collision avoidance, but failure to be aware of your surroundings and alert to potential traffic conflicts is a sure way to fail the test. Make adequate clearing turns immediately before entering your maneuver. Just because they aren't listed in the maneuver objectives doesn't mean you don't have to perform them. To make sure that traffic doesn't sneak up on you during the maneuver, look outside.

Entry airspeed is the second objective for steep turns listed in the PTS. Currently, the PTS asks you to establish VA (maneuvering speed) or the recommended entry speed for the airplane. Because applicants fly a wide variety of airplanes, this wording led to some questions until the FAA announced a pen-and-ink change to the PTS. That change counseled examiners that, if no manufacturer recommended airspeed existed, the examiner may designate an entry speed that would not exceed VA. In other words, your examiner can specify an entry airspeed, and most likely it will be very close to the one you and your instructor selected if that airspeed does not violate the airplane's maneuvering speed.

Some applicants and flight instructors are confused about whether or not you must perform steep turns in both directions on the checkride. On the private pilot checkride, the answer is that it's up to the examiner. After you have established your recommended entry airspeed, the third objective is to roll into a coordinated 360-degree turn. Smoothness is the key at this point. Your examiner will appreciate not having the side window assault his head because the airplane snaps into a 45-degree bank like an F-22! Coordination demands some rudder input, and by this time you should know how much is just right. The Airplane Flying Handbook describes the steep turn as being in either direction and having 360 degrees or 720 degrees of turn. The PTS specifies only 360 degrees in a given direction, but the fourth objective allows your examiner to request a turn in the opposite direction as well. Some examiners (like myself) occasionally request this.

One aspect of steep turns that should be predictable is that you roll out on the entry heading, or at least within plus or minus 10 degrees of that heading. Even this requirement has raised questions. The PTS specifies rollout criteria using the word "heading." Based on this, some have argued that applicants must use the heading indicator (directional gyro) for their entry and exit cues. Yet some directional gyros precess badly. A precessed heading indicator can lead to too much or too little turn during the maneuver. A fixed, outside reference ensures 360 degrees of turn, but some pilots dispute that as not being a heading. Most examiners count an outside reference as a heading for steep turns. In our careers, we have seen directional gyros tumble into spinning blurs during steep turns, plus we consider looking outside a vital part of the next objective.

The fifth objective seems almost anecdotal, but examiners can relate tale after tale of applicants not meeting it because they never once looked outside. The PTS specifies that the applicant must divide his or her attention between airplane control and orientation. The problem of instrument panel fixation underscores the need for instructors to emphasize looking outside the airplane as well. How alarming it is for an applicant to be unable to answer the examiner's question, "What color was that airplane that just missed us?"

The final objective is what many people consider the whole maneuver. Objective six specifies the maneuver's altitude and airspeed standards - you must complete the maneuver with- out gaining or losing more than 100 feet of altitude and more than 10 knots of airspeed. Most applicants start their steep turns more than 1,600 feet above the surface, to remain above 1,500 feet agl should they lose up to 100 feet of altitude during the turn. Proper trimming can make it easier to maintain the correct altitude, but instructors and examiners disagree on whether or not you should trim for steep turns. If you do trim for the turn, don't forget to make the necessary adjustments when you roll out or you're likely to find yourself fighting an airplane that wants to climb. Before you apply for the checkride, you should know just how many turns of the trim wheel it takes to help you hold altitude in a 45-degree bank. Occasionally, applicants smoothly increase airspeed beyond 10 kt during the last 90 degrees of the turn.

Your examiner's attention, like yours, is divided inside and outside the airplane, and if you are prepared and practiced, you can enjoy the G-loads. And for one smooth, sweetly curving moment, you and your airplane can rule the sky.

Dave Wilkerson is a designated pilot examiner, writer/photographer, and historian. He has been a certificated flight instructor for more than 23 years and is a single- and multiengine-rated commercial pilot.