I freaking love dodgeball. One of my personal mantras I live my life by is, “Always participate when asked to play dodgeball. When participating, always win.”
It’s kind of funny though because I haven’t been invited to play dodgeball in quite a while. It’s been so long that I think if I actually threw a ball right now, my shoulder would just explode into a million pieces.
Nonetheless, I hold this mantra close to my heart. It’s important to have fun and remain as a kid as you grow up.
But it’s also important to win…
My best guess is that this idea comes from the fact I have an older brother and would play dodgeball, amongst other things like Pokemon, just to try and impress him and his friends.
He would always say, “The ultimate technique for dodgeball is to run in a serpentine pattern and throw the balls like Derek Jeter on the run.”
Like I said, he’s my older brother, so I would smile and nod even though I had no clue what the heck “serpentine” even meant!
This would lead to me running around like a chicken with my head cut off and getting smashed in the noggin with balls.
You’re probably giggling while reading this, but really you’re thinking, “Josh, you’ve got some funny stories, but how in the world does you taking balls to the face teach me anything about flying? I don’t come here to read cute little kid stories. I come here to learn about becoming a pilot!”
And to that I say, I didn’t ALWAYS get hit in the face. Sometimes it was just my shoulder or chest. And I eventually learned what ‘serpentine’ means and was able to not be the easy target.
Once I started my flight training the serpentine pattern became relevant again. This time I was learning how to do it in an airplane. But pilots are too cool (or lazy, if I’m honest) and decided to call the maneuver “S-Turns” instead.
How to do S-Turns
S-turns are one of the most useful maneuvers you can do to become the best pilot. I say it all the time, we don’t want to be pilots; we don’t want to be good pilots; we want to be the best pilots!
To be the best pilot, we need to know how to do S-turns properly. You probably got a good taste of this while doing your discovery flight. So, here we go.
For starters, you need to find a straight line on the ground to use as a reference for the maneuver. The best option is a road, a really long fence line, or power lines.
When you are choosing your ground reference, you need to make sure the current wind is going crosswind in reference to the ground.
The goal of an S-turn is to fly across a ground line as a reference, making semi circles of equal size. This gives your flight path an “s” appearance, or a ‘serpentine’ pattern to bring the story into play.
Now that you have everything picked out, you need to make sure to do your clearing turns and maintain an altitude between 600 and 1,000 feet above ground level (AGL). Maybe even higher won’t hurt.
Make sure you trim up the airplane so that you can sit there hands free and still fly straight and level. It makes life a million times easier if you do this.
Now, you set up to fly across the ground reference line with the wind pushing your tail. You’re going to use this tail wind to your benefit. That means this will be the fastest ground speed you will have during the maneuver.
You’re going to cross the reference line with your wings level. Then, as soon as you cross that line, begin your turn to the left. Because you have the fastest airspeed, physics says that you will require the steepest bank of the turns to make sure both semi circles are the same size.
As you make your way upwind in the turn, you will begin to level out your wings. The main goal is to make sure that you have wings level by the time you cross the reference line.
Once you cross that line, you will begin your turn to the right. This time you will be at your slowest ground speed, so you will require less bank to make the same turn as before.
I’ll dive into the “why” this is the way it is in the next section.
You will notice the bank angle will be increasing here instead of decreasing to hit your apex of the turn. Then you will level back out to cross over the reference line with wings level again.
The characteristics of this maneuver make it look like an “S,” which is why these lazy…I’m sorry, I meant to say “cool”…pilots call it the “S-turn” maneuver.
After doing this a few times, you reverse directions so you begin by turning to the right with the tail wind to give you a feel for wind in both turn directions.
Why We Learn S-Turns
The most important reason we, as pilots, have to do S-turns is because you must be able to tell how wind will affect your flight path.
You will see how the wind gives or takes speed. You will see how the wind pushes you closer or farther from your ground reference line, which will affect the bank angle needed to maintain the same size of semi circle.
Another big thing this maneuver teaches you is how to maintain altitude during turns. This will help you later on when you are doing cross country flights and don’t want to bust airspace, or more importantly, so you don’t hit another aircraft as you turn.
The last big benefit here is that you get to play with headings. You can set your heading initially as a perfect north heading which is 360 degrees. Then as you turn and end up going south, you can see that your heading changed to 180 degrees. When perfectly parallel with the ground reference line, you will either be facing 090 degrees or 270 degrees.
This allows you the opportunity to practice rolling out on specific headings, which gets more and more important as you fly.
Now, another thing I wanted to talk about has to do with the bank angle. I’m not going to get too technical here because I’m not a physicist or aerodynamics master, but I think it’s important to know this information.
If you want a more detailed explanation, refer to the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge (PHAK) which is completely free in an electronic format on the FAA’s website.
But to sum it up, the faster you are traveling, the steeper bank angle you will need to make the same turn you could at a slower speed.
The best way to give an example is with cars. If you have a car that is going 10 mph then makes a 90 degree turn to the left, it’ll do it no problem. But if you’re in the same car and you go 90 mph to make the 90 degree turn to the left, you will require much more space to make that turn.
If you’ve ever played a racing video game (even Mario Kart works for this example) you will notice that you will start drifting at the higher speed and skid out to the side, most likely hitting the wall and losing your spot in first place.
The rapid deceleration is what makes you be able to make the sharp turn better. If you stayed going 90 mph the whole time, you would require a seriously wide berth to make sure you didn’t smash into the wall.
This means, the next time your little cousin, niece, nephew, or child wants to play Mario Kart with you, you can accept knowing you’re also training to be a better pilot.
I got bad news though: Mario Kart doesn’t even count as sim time for your log book.
Remember, we study not to be pilots, not to be good pilots, but to be the best pilots! Now, go out there and be the best.