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#76 That Damned Flat Turn

I was thinking about this the other day.  I certainly didn’t intend to be someone to whom people would go to learn things that they couldn’t seem to learn anywhere else.  In fact, I don’t think I am.  I think there are other instructors all over the world who teach the type of flying that I do.  They might not approach it the same way, but they all do what they can to encourage their students to be better than it takes to meet “minimum standards”.  I guess we’re outnumbered by all those instructors at all those “Acme Flying Schools” which use low-time, unimaginative instructors to teach by the FAA-written book and crank out bunches of pilots just like the narrator in Bach’s “Found at Pharisee”.

Cub from side

The 100 HP J-3 Cub with which I did comedy maneuvers for fourteen years

But in my musings, I found myself going back to figure out how I ended up doing what I do.  I guess it all started with airshow comedy flying.  I wasn’t particularly good.  I’ve always told people who asked that, although I may have been the worst aerobatic pilot in the airshow industry, I think I may have been the best dog trainer.  And my comedy act depended on a Border Collie to round up a bunch of ducks after I smacked into their big cardboard box with my 100 hp Cub.  But any airshow comedy pilot depends on a routine which includes some goofy flying, much of it with the airplane “crossed up” and flying in a very uncoordinated state.  It was that damned flat turn that started the whole thing.

A flat turn is initiated by shoving one rudder pedal to the floor and using aileron to keep the wings level.  That starts a flat turn.  Lots of power is usually required to maintain altitude in that configuration and sensitivity to elevator is kind of important to avoid a spin.  Really, it’s strictly a show-biz maneuver.  There is absolutely no reason to ever do it for any other reason than to entertain.  But once I started getting reasonably good at flying a comedy routine with that flat turn as its centerpiece, local pilots began to drift in and ask me about it.

“How do you do that flat turn?” they’d ask, although it seemed pretty obvious to me.  Pretty soon I was giving some dual instruction after the shows.  It seemed that the practice of airshow comedy flying had developed certain skills that others wanted to acquire.

A lot of time has passed since those early days of flight instruction, but I have to give credit to airshow comedy flying in general and that flat turn in particular for starting the current Stick and Rudder Master Class and the Tailwheel Endorsement courses that I spend so much time with now.

Copy (2) of Krashbern and Ace in J3

“The Border Collie died years ago. The grease paint is gone.”

Ironically, the skid, which is the condition that flat turn is based on, is rarely practiced in the instruction I give now.  My current courses are based largely on safety and making sure that my students handle an airplane with the proficiency that’s necessary to keep them safe and in control.  A skidding stall is the basic condition leading to most inadvertent spins.  I teach my students how to recognize it and I don’t encourage its practice other than during dual instruction.

The Border Collie died years ago.  The grease paint is gone.  The helmet and goggles hang on a hook in my living room.  But I still have that flat turn in my bag o’ tricks.

And every once in a while, when I’m by myself and turning base to final, I’ll mash that rudder and level the wings.  The plane will slide sideways onto its short final and just for a moment I’ll be a comedy pilot once more.

Happy Swooping


8 comments to #76 That Damned Flat Turn

  • It was one of the many things I learned.
    The forward slip in a C150 not so placarded. Later I’d use it in exchange for flaps when the fuse would randomly pop when the decent needed had to be steep for trees or just a way to slow down while going down.

    The turn was critical and part of my unusual attitudes training. That taught me how to handle the bear though it entire envelops and when it does at the edges. All under safe and controlled conditions.

    Proficiency was knowing where the corners of the envelope were and how to stay inside them when things pear shaped.


  • Tracy Thurman

    Great article. Sorry about the dog though. Hope you are doing well.
    Take care and stay safe!

  • Clayton Roney

    Brian, long before you we’re my friend, and instructor, your comedy act peaked my interest in aviation. I saw you and Nancy perform your show in Springfield , Or Bloomington Il when I was young. I was lucky enough to be one of your students who got to learn the flat turn from you. I still enjoy doing that maneuver in my Taylorcraft. I can’t wait to see the video of your act.

  • Frank Sturm

    I found out this manoeuvre for myself in the time when I used to suffer from airsickness a lot. Soaring in my part-owned Standard Cirrus sailplane was fine, but I usually got sick after prolonged thermal flying. When airsickness developed, I found that flying in circles with spoilers extended (to get down) attracted other gliders in the neighbourhood to my presumed thermal. The same if I tried to find areas of strong sink to circle in. Makes you realize there is not that much sink around …
    Diving straight ahead at increased speed was uncomfortable.
    It turned out that a slipping turn with aileron input towards the inside wing and rudder away from the center of the turn was not nice either, because the bank angle becomes quite large.
    However, soon I found out that slipping (or skidding) in the forbidden direction: away from the center of the turn, was the solution. You stay roughly where you are, wings are more or less level all the time (though not very steady), and the glider maintains a low turning rate, while descending quite rapidly. Speed remains low, and there is no high wind noise level. Nobody thinks you are in a thermal, and it feels quite comfortable, with a good overview of what happens around oneself. The glider wallowed a lot during this odd way of flying but never even tried to fall away from me.

    Happy skidding!

    • brian

      I found Frank’s comment interesting. Just want to remind my readers that in order for most aircraft to spin, they must be both stalled AND skidding. So whenever you are skidding, care must be excercised that an added stall doesn’t cause an unwanted spin.

  • Guy Parker

    Hey, Brian, I was interested in Frank’s comment about trying to get “down” when there was lift everywhere Reminded me of my days flying hang gliders off Woodrat Mt. near Ruch, Or. Evenings after a great thermal day, we used to get a “glass-off’ where there was lift everywhere. One evening, I was tending toward nausea and really wanted to be on the ground, but conditions would have none of it. I had to corkscrew my way down through the lift to get back on the ground.

    Hang gliders provide an excellent education about the way winds and terrain affect any flying platform. And there’s no better way, I believe, to emulate flying the way the birds do it. No wheels, no sticks, no pedals, just think a turn and you perform it.

  • RobertL

    Thanks for re posting the link.

    Us ACME school practitioners over the pond demonstrate the flat turn early on in the PPL, in part to show it is the inclined lift vector in a bank that turns the aircraft, and not the rudder. We apply full rudder while holding wings level, point out where the ball is and we are now flying sideways, and then re centre the rudder and show we have hardly turned, if at all.

    I think this, and building a better propeller, was the great insight of the Wright Brothers.

    Happy swooping!

    • brian

      Robert’s point is really well-taken. Many’s the time that I’ve demonstrated the flat turn only to have the airplane hardly turn at all. The best demos I ever did in the airshow comedy days were when there was a brisk wind to cause the airplane to move sideways across the ground. One more reason the skid is to be avoided: Not only will it do its share to contribute to the deadly spin, but it won’t do that much to turn you! Thanks, Robert!

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