3 Things Every Pilot Needs to Know About… Clearing Turns

Many flight instructors hammer home a short list of items that every student pilot should do prior to completing a maneuver. This is for two purposes, first to stay safe and second to show a pilot examiner on a flight test that the student knows that they are doing! Amongst this group of items are things like selecting an emergency landing site, knowing the wind direction, completing the pre-maneuver checklist, making an announcement on the practice area radio frequency, if applicable and lastly, completing clearing turns. But clearing turns are much more than a memory-item prior to completing a stall recovery demonstration or a chandelle, for those of you that are commercial pilot students.


Flying close to another airplane can be very safe, with proper planning and coordination…

All too often clearing turns can become a quick item that a pilot “needs to do” before a flight maneuver and the clearing turns are thus treated as second-class tasks, which don’t have a high value… Or worse, the clearing turns are thought of as unnecessary and skipped all together!

The reality is quite the contrary. The sky is very big, until you get too close to another aircraft then “see and avoid” culture concept becomes a crazy idea!

If you fly long enough you’ll undoubtedly experience a time when your airplane is “too close” to another, but it is also highly likely that just like many other pilots, that being too close is as far as it goes and the other airplane probably wasn’t that close anyways. But in the moment it seemed like it was right there!

Flight instructors are much more likely to experience this as they spend more time flying around a small area than over long distances further away. I can recall one experience where my student and I many years ago over the “Charlie/Delta” practice area in Southeastern Massachusetts (over the Lakeville, MA lakes) had a close call that was way too close for comfort. We had been working on slow flight, Minimum Controllable Airspeed (MCA) and a variety of stall recovery demonstrations. Prior to each new maneuver we could complete a 180-degree clearing turn, which also kept us within the well-known (throughout the area) practice area.

The close call came while we were flying due North from the south end of Long Pond up towards Route 495. Along the way the student would be tasked with maintaining MCA and completing a variety of small turns. Once we reached Route 495, the student would “recover” back to cruise, we would complete another 180-degree clearing turn and then likely begin a series of stall recovery demonstrations while working our way back towards the south. This was a flight I would do with my students who were working on their solo and cross-country requirements during their training as a refresher. Plus, this would allow me to check up on their piloting abilities and ensure that they were maintaining their piloting skills.

On this day, a beautiful day, the skies were clear; the wind was fairly calm or limited to only a few knots down our primary Runway 32 at Mansfield. It was a classic cool early New England fall day. This was one of those days a flight instructor who hope for a slam packed schedule to reach the 8-hour limit of flight instruction on a given day.

The stall horn was whaling away and my student was expertly mush-ing through the skies at a whopping 42ish knots. Well below the 48-knot clean stall speed of the Cessna 172S, thank you cool high-pressure system air! We had completed a variety of maneuvers already that day and thus a pile of clearing turns. There were a few other airplanes in the air that day, including another training aircraft on the far side of the practice area lakes. The flight instructor in that plane was a good friend of mine, Adam. He was a flight instructor out of the Plymouth Airport and we had exchanged hellos on the practice area frequency and kept each other posted of our positions. He was doing similar maneuvers on his lesson that day and we watched from a few miles away as he and his student completed their stall recoveries and slow flight.

My student was quickly, well as quickly as you can at minimum controllable airspeed, approaching Route 495 and was doing a great job. The nose was pitched up and we both monitored our surroundings for traffic, we mixed in turns to help ensure there was no head on traffic from time to time. All of a sudden, almost as if an automatic motion, my hand seemingly without my control, palm struck the center of the yoke, forcing the nose down. This was an automatic reaction from a very large, very close object appearing in the left side of my field of vision.

The other aircraft was came from the 10:30 position, one I couldn’t see with the nose so high and likely blocked from my students view by the structural support between the windscreen and the pilot-side door. The climbing, large twin-engine aircraft had its nose pitched up and was so close that we could hear the sound of its engines. As if it was a solar eclipse, the cockpit darkened as the shadow cast by the larger aircraft filled the cockpit of our Skyhawk. The event even piqued the interest of my fellow instructor on the far side of the practice area who asked over the practice area frequency, “Are you okay over there?”

“All good, but I think we’re going to head back…” was my response. If you fly long enough you’re bound to experience a variety of situations that test you. On that day we were lucky, lucky my student was right at the altitude I requested, lucky we didn’t hit a thermal, lucky for a lot of things. I’ll never know how the climbing aircraft didn’t see us, or maybe they did… Either way that experience motivated me to complete 360-degree clearing turns and to incorporate even more turns to my students slow flight demonstrations. Remember, learning is a change in behavior as a result of experience. That experience certainly was a learning experience for me. My student handled the experience well too, didn’t get shaken up and made a great landing when we arrived back at Mansfield.

  1. Lift the wings first…

This one is really for high wing aircraft pilots… Prior to rolling into the clearing turn, it is best practice to lift the wing slightly and take a peak where you’re about to turn. Just incase there is another airplane right there.

Unlikely? Sure. Possible? Same answer… Remember the majority of midair collisions are between aircraft on a converging course, meaning not “head-on”. This means another aircraft really could be right there…

  1. Keep it easy & smooth…

When it comes to the private pilot flight test (check ride) or any other ride with an examiner, clearing turns set the tone for the maneuvers to follow. An easy, smooth turn is critical and often times pilots try to over think simple turns. Thinking about a specific bank angle, airspeed, etc… Often times this causes a pilot to zone in on one item and them everything else goes to “hell in a hand basket” so to say. If a pilot is focusing too much on holding 100 KIAS, then altitude and bank angle can sometimes be over looked.

A smooth, coordinated turn, executed by sticking a point on the cowling on the horizon (unless you’re around mountains) and bringing it around sets a solid tone. Whether you are demonstrating a maneuver for a pilot examiner or a passenger friend.

  1. Look out the window!

Remember that a clearing turn is intended to clear the area. The idea is that the contentious pilot will be scanning the sky and ensuring there is no traffic around the area.

Clearing turns are commonly 180 degrees of total turn, whether it is two 90-degree turns or a single 180-degree turn. I always recommend that pilots make a complete 360-degree turn, or very close so as to roll out on a cardinal heading. Cardinal headings are always a great reference. The reason I recommend 360-degree turns is it gives you a full picture of what is around you. Especially with two 90-degree turns, it is very easy to miss scanning a portion of the sky.

Lastly, it is important to remember just because you did a clearing turn a few minutes ago doesn’t mean that a new target hasn’t entered your area. A clearing turn isn’t a check the box task. Just because you just did one doesn’t mean you saw everything. For those of you who fly with traffic information, just remember, not every aircraft is going to show up on there either… Collision avoidance and scanning for other aircraft is an on-going task throughout each and every flight. From takeoff to touchdown, a good pilot is always noticing his or her surroundings and watching for other aircraft. Remember, it’s a big sky until it isn’t anymore…

-Fly Safe, @MTElia1B9


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