Unlocking the Smooth Steep Turn with Sunflower Seeds!

Each time I visit a convenience store the sunflower seeds always get a second look. Very rarely do I chew sunflower seeds anymore, but there was a time when the opposite was the case. It was a very common occurrence for me to “go through” a bag of seeds a day!

You are probably things, what does my chewing sunflower seeds have to do with flying? Well, not surprisingly, there is a lesson about flying we can take from just about everything, including sunflower seeds!

Photo Jun 27, 11 38 43 AM

Who knew the answer to a smooth, crisp steep turn would be in the sun(flower seeds)?


Let’s talk about steep turns for a second, a bit of a topic jump, I know, but stick with me and you’ll see the correlation. Steep turns are a performance maneuver, and one of the more fun maneuvers private pilot students get to master during their training. Once certificated, and able to give rides, private pilots often demonstrate the maneuver for their ride-along buddies to experience the unique feeling of a high bank anglein a safe way…

One of the common errors associated with steep turns is over banking and/or failure to maintain a constant bank angle. Steep turns are very simple and very easy, but it’s all about setting up for the maneuver properly and rolling into the turn correctly (and “coordinated-ly”).

A nice, crisp, coordinated, well-executed roll into the turn results in a great foundation for completing the maneuver. Once in the turn, simply plant the horizon on a fixed point on your cowling or dash board and keep a constant bank/pitch and ride the same airspeed all the way around the turn. Begin the roll out by slightly more than half your bank angle (i.e.- In a 50 –degree bank, begin the roll out 25-30 degree ahead of your intended heading after the turn), and then make sure you don’t let the nose “pop” up if you used extra power or trim to hold the steep turn.

Side note – trim is intended to relieve long term control pressure, using trim during a steep turn means one of two things: 1. Trim is being used to fly the airplane, by maintaining a pitch for the duration of the turn, or 2. Trim is being used to lessen but not zero out the back pressure needed to maintain a constant bank/pitch for the turn. Either of those are blatant misuses of trim… Leave the trim wheel where it is and fly the airplane, don’t fly the trim!

Anyways, back to the steep turns, it sounds pretty simple, right? Well it is, but every so often pilots get a wandering eye and lose sight of keeping the horizon on a constant spot on the dash board. Granted in mountainous/hilly terrain areas this can be a little more difficult, but not impossible.

What else is there to look at besides the horizon? Well, the attitude indicator, also known as the artificial horizon, would be a good thing to check! Especially if the horizon isn’t perfectly flat around you! The airspeed indicator is another good source of information. Unfortunately, these aren’t the only places pilots look…

Through years of teaching I realized there is one very specific spot almost every student and pilot I ever flew with looked during a steep turn. Oddly enough, and I probably did it too when I was learning/had low experience, student pilots tend to look out the lower side window. As if something on the ground, whether that meant on their side or my side of the airplane, was going to help them make a crisp, smooth steep turn. The exact opposite is the case, as all the happens is over banking. But, why is that the case? We can find the answer in the sunflower seeds! See, I told you we’d make it back to the seeds…

It was a cool New England spring day and I was driving home from my first job at a grocery store as a teenager. I probably had some rock music playing, the windows were down and I had one arm out the window of my F-150 pickup truck. Route 44 in Taunton, MA was stretch of mostly straight road, with one lane in either direction with a speed limit of 50 or so miles per hour.

As usual I loaded up with a mouth full of sunflower seeds before leaving the work parking lot and chewed each one meticulously cracking the shell, eating the seed and spitting the shells out individually, without choking. It was a learned talent I picked up sitting on the shore with my father fishing for many hours while growing up.

The individual seed routine was pretty simple, riding with the window down meant I could just spit the seed shell out the window each time instead of worrying about a “catch cup”. For whatever reason on that particular day, I noticed that when I turned my head to spit out each seed shell that I also gently moved the steering wheel of the truck in the same direction I was turning my head. I really don’t remember how I picked up on the movement of the steering wheel as it was never close to enough to pose any danger by crossing over the lines into oncoming traffic, but I remember thinking, “Huh, that’s weird”.

But in reality it isn’t weird, when you move your head, the rest of your body wants to follow, that was what was happening to me when I was spitting out he seed shells and it’s the same thing that happens to low time pilots and student pilots who turn their head to look out the side window of the airplane while in a steep turn… When a pilot looks out the side window they are unknowingly opening themselves up to overbanking or initiating a small turn in that direction. During normal cruise flight or shallow turns this is unnoticeable amongst the normal movement of an airplane. The story is a little different during a steep turn though, the additional roll is magnified by the ongoing performance maneuver.

This common error is extremely simple to overcome once it is realized that there is no valuable information to be gained from looking out the side window, down at the ground. Pilots keeping their eyes on the horizon whether that means outside the airplane or with the aircraft instruments helps to make for the desired smooth, crisp steep turns- sure to impress flight instructors, examiners or friends…

-Fly Safe, @MTElia1B9


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