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How To Fly Perfect S-Turns, Every Time

S-Turns are one of three ground-reference maneuvers you'll fly as a student pilot. Here's how to fly them perfectly, every time.

ErikBrouwer

First, What Exactly Is An "S-Turn?"

According to the Airplane Flying Handbook, "S-turns is a ground reference maneuver in which the airplane's ground track resembles two opposite but equal half-circles on each side of a selected ground-based straight line reference." It's a maneuver which tests your ability to correct for wind during all turns, and is especially helpful in developing your ability to compensate for wind while flying a traffic pattern.

Your goal is to fly a constant radius turn on either side of your reference line. Here's what they look like:

The FAA lists out a number of objectives that you should learn from S-Turns, including:

  • Maintaining a specific relationship between the airplane and the ground.
  • Dividing attention between the flight path, ground-based references, manipulating the flight controls, and scanning for outside hazards and instrument indications.
  • Adjusting the bank angle during turns to correct for groundspeed changes in order to maintain a constant radius turns.
  • Steeper bank angles for higher ground speeds, shallow bank angles for slower ground speeds.
  • Rolling out from a turn with the required wind correction angle to compensate for any drift caused by the wind.
  • Establishing and correcting the wind correction angle in order to maintain the track over the ground.
  • Developing the ability to compensate for drift in quickly changing orientations.
  • Arriving at specific points on required headings.

Step 1: Choose Your Line And Clear The Area

Scan the ground for straight line references which are long enough to use for S-Turns. A few good options are roads, power line clearings, railroads, or the section lines of large fields. Attempt to find a line perpendicular to winds aloft; this will be important later on. Since you'll be flying at low altitude, choose a reference line that has options for emergency landing locations nearby. You should try to avoid populated areas and busy roads.

Once you've found your spot, clear the area with a series of clearing turns and radio call.

Step 2: Descend And Perform a Downwind Entry

Most ground reference maneuvers are flown between 600-1,000 feet above the ground (AGL). Use local elevation references on your chart to find the appropriate indicated altitude you should fly.

Unless an examiner asks you differently, begin a downwind entry into the S-Turn, perpendicular to the line you've chosen. You have to keep your speed within +/- 10 knots, and the best speed for ground reference maneuvers varies by airplane.

Step 3: Begin Your First 180 Degree Turn

As your wings cross your reference line, immediately begin your first 180 degree turn. You can start by turning left or right, it's your choice. Because you're entering from a downwind, your ground speed will be the highest here.

With increased groundspeed, you'll have the steepest bank angle as you roll into this turn.

Step 4: Decreasing Bank and Rollout

As your turn progresses, gradually decrease your bank angle to compensate for decreasing ground speed. Scan outside and inside the airplane to maintain +/- 100 feet of altitude and +/- 10 knots of airspeed.

As you approach the 180 degree point, your ground speed is at its slowest. You'll need the least amount of bank at this point to maintain a constant radius. Your goal is to cross your reference line at wings level.

Step 5: Reverse The Turn

It's time to fly the same radius turn in the opposite direction. As you cross the reference line, you'll turn in a shallow bank since your ground speed is slow (you're facing a headwind).

Gradually increase your bank angle to compensate for increasing ground speed to fly a constant radius turn.

Step 6: Rollout And Completion

As you complete your second 180 degree turn, you'll need to fly a steep bank angle on the back side of the turn, since your ground speed will be high. Rollout at wings level once you've crossed the reference line.

That's it!

Use Ground Reference Points!

If you're having trouble maintaining a constant radius from your reference line, try using reference points on either side of the reference line as "flyover points."

If you pick easily identifiable points that correspond to the proper radius on either side of the line, you can use them as an extra resource for determining how much you should bank and when. It's a great way to get a feel for how much bank angle you should add when you're first learning the maneuver.

Common Errors

There are a few things you should look out for when flying this maneuver. If you see yourself making one of these mistakes, begin correcting and let your instructor/examiner know that you're doing so...

  • Not adequately clear the area above, below, and on either side of the airplane for safety hazards, initially and throughout the maneuver.
  • Not establishing a constant, level altitude prior to entering the maneuver.
  • Not maintaining altitude during the maneuver.
  • Not properly assess wind direction.
  • Not properly executing constant radius turns.
  • Not manipulating the flight controls in a smooth and continuous manner when transitioning into turns.
  • Not establishing the appropriate wind correction angle.
  • Not applying coordinated aileron and rudder pressure, resulting in slips or skids.

Easy enough, right? This maneuver will develop your skills in windy conditions and make your traffic patterns look a whole lot better. Find a windy day and practice it with your instructor!

Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, certified flight instructor, and commercial pilot for Mokulele Airlines. In addition to multi-engine and instrument ratings, he holds a PIC Type Rating for Cessna Citation Jets (CE-525). He graduated as an aviation major from the University of North Dakota in 2018. He's the author of the articles, quizzes and lists you love to read every week. You can reach Swayne at swayne@boldmethod.com, and follow his flying adventures at http://www.swaynemartin.com.

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