Level Turns (Part Two)

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 3-16] The pilot should then cross-check 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.

Figure 3-16. Visual reference for angle of bank.

Figure 3-16. Visual reference for angle of bank. [click image to enlarge]

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 3-17]

Figure 3-17. Correct and incorrect posture while seated in the airplane.

Figure 3-17. Correct and incorrect posture while seated in the airplane. [click image to enlarge]

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 3-18]

Figure 3-18. Parallax view.

Figure 3-18. Parallax view. [click image to enlarge]

Beginning pilots should not use large aileron and rudder control inputs. This is because large control inputs produce rapid roll rates and allows 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 pressures. 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 must 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 and trimming additional elevator back pressure as the bank angle goes beyond 30°. This tends to reduce the demands for large control inputs from the pilot during the turn.


Since the airplane continues turning as long as there is any bank, the rollout from the turn must 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.

For outside references, select the horizon and another point ahead. If those two points stay in alignment, the airplane is tracking to that point as long as there is not a crosswind requiring a crab angle. It would also be a good idea to include VFR references for heading as well and pitch. A pilot holds course in VFR by tracking to a point in front of the compass, with only glances at the compass to ensure he or she is still on course. This reliance on a surface point does not work when flying over water or flat snow covered surfaces. In these conditions, the pilot must rely on the compass or gyro-heading indicator.

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 must retain the proper sight picture of the nose following the horizon, whether up, down, left or right and isolate undesired motion. It is essential that flight control coordination be developed because it is the very basis of all fundamental flight maneuvers.

Common errors in level turns are:

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

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