One of my favorite maneuvers when conducting a flight review is the steep turn. This innocuous looking maneuver provides a window into a pilot’s stick and rudder skill that allows me to quickly find areas of deficiency where the pilot being reviewed might need more work.
Please remember that the flight review is not a test and my goal is not to fail anybody. Rather, I want to find areas where the pilot is out of practice and try to give them a boost!
The steep turn requires a combination of just about all of the basic flying skills in one maneuver. It requires a pilot to:
- Maintain altitude using the elevator
- Maintain altitude using the ailerons (see below for more about this)
- Maintain rudder coordination
- Fly straight and level for a good entry
- Properly lead their roll out to hit the right heading
- Divide their attention between the instruments and outside
- Maintain situational awareness and stay ahead of the airplane
What is a steep turn?
The steep turn is 360-degree turn at a high bank angle. The standard for the Private Pilot checkride is 45 degrees of bank. For the Commercial Pilot checkride, the standard is 50 degrees of bank.
The maneuver is fairly straightforward. First, do some clearing turns!
Then establish straight and level flight (I like to be above 1500 feet AGL) at or just below maneuvering speed for your aircraft. Don’t forget to trim for hands-off flight here.
See that mountain/hill/building/pond/etc in front of you? That is your reference point. Don’t forget about it.
Begin a turn to the left or right at a 45-degree bank. As your bank increases, you will need lots of back pressure to keep from descending. Now, look at the cowl of the plane and how it is slicing through the horizon. This is your center position.
As the turn continues, peek inside to verify that you are not climbing or descending. If you are, then adjust your pitch to correct and then return to your center position once you are back at the altitude you started on. You should expect to change your center position slightly after a correction so you don’t end up with the same problem again.
This all happens in the span of a few seconds as you travel around the turn. While managing the altitude you also need to peek at your attitude indicator and verify that your bank is at 45 degrees.
You can optionally use some trim in the turn to help you maintain altitude. I personally don’t fly it this way or teach it this way because you will be actively maintaining pitch throughout the maneuver anyway.
Next, prepare to roll out by looking for your starting heading when you peek inside and looking for your starting reference point when you are looking outside.
You need to have situational awareness here and keep track of how far around the turn you are at all times.
You will need to lead your roll out with half of your bank angle, so begin rolling level at about 22 degrees from your starting heading.
Once you are level make sure you are again trimmed for level hands-off flight and prepare for the next turn in the other direction.
The key to getting this maneuver right is the attitude of the cowling as it slices through the horizon. Focus on this and adjust it as needed. The way the horizon goes across the cowling will be slightly different each time you try a steep turn and it will be completely different depending on if you are turning right or left.
On a calm day, if you perform the maneuver just right, you may fly through your own wake turbulence as you roll out of the turn. This will feel like a small bump of turbulence (or like driving over a small speed bump). This is a good sign but it doesn’t always happen, even if the steep turn was perfect!
Ailerons for Altitude?
In the Commercial level 50 degree bank steep turn you may end up descending too steeply. This often occurs if you have not pulled in enough back pressure at the beginning of the turn. Once this happens, pulling more elevator while keeping the bank constant will often not provide enough pitch authority to raise the nose.
Instead, it can pull the turn tighter leading to what is called a graveyard spiral. If you find that a huge amount of back pressure is not enough, you can still fix it. Continue the back pressure and use the ailerons to bump a little bit of bank out, maybe from 50 down to 45 degrees. You will find that this will quickly bring the nose back up to the horizon. Of course, for the maneuver to be done right you will need to return to 50 degrees of bank right away.
If you are carrying passengers, even if they are other pilots, it is a good idea to ask them “how are you feeling?” every so often. Steep turns are an easy way to get passengers feeling nauseous and they may not tell you if you don’t ask. If they are sick I recommend discontinuing the maneuver and following some of the steps here.