Smooth Turns

We spend a lot of time talking about turns. Fast turns, slow turns, wide, narrow, low and high. We discuss in depth what a safe turn is and scold anyone who mentions the term “hammerhead”.  As ag pilots, we spend an awful lot of time with one wing up and the other down. Mastering good, safe, efficient turns is something every one of us strive for.

I get to work with some of the best pilots the industry. Pilots who had this crop dusting thing figured out a long time ago. I am always amazed at how smooth these guys fly. You can tell a guy knows his stuff when he guides his airplane throughout an application evolution and his flight path looks like it was orchestrated by a symphony conductor. Turns that are smooth as butter. Passes that are nice and even across the field with a couple of easy swipes across the ends. Then back to the runway for another load. No muss, no fuss.

Too often I get in a hurry. Which always slows me down. I start chasing the light bar, zig zagging at the rollout from the turn trying to lasso my pass, overcorrecting and basically making a mess out of things. At times like these is when I remember what an old crop duster pilot told me when I first started out; “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.”

Taking time in the turns is something pilots argue about. I’ve talked with guys who say they’ll swing out a mile if that’s what it takes. I’ve also seen men watch their hired pilots turn with a stopwatch in their hand.

Experience shows turning the airplane in a coordinated, efficient manner beats cranking it around trying to shave off a second or two every time. Don’t believe me? Watch the old pros; guys with so many seasons under their belts, their logbooks were old enough to vote back when politicians still tried to cover up their lies.

I had the privilege of flying a two-holer N3N back when I was learning how to fly. I mean really fly. An old bird like the “N”, or a Stearman, will teach a pilot how to fly better than any other airplane out there. Those airplanes were designed and built by the greatest generation. Nothing since can even come close. That’s my opinion, anyhow.

The quirky old pilot who taught me to fly used the word “graceful”, not a word you hear very often in this line of work. “You got to be graceful,” he would say. Then he’d motion with his hands, demonstrating a smooth turn. “Don’t man handle the old girl. Let the wings do the work.”

I try to remember those lessons, although there are times when I try to hurry. I usually wind up losing time instead of gaining it. I’ve watched Wayne Handley’s ‘Turn Smart’ video at least a hundred times and sometime I still find myself turning stupidly.

One very important factor to keep in mind; make sure your wings are level when going over the wires. You can imagine the result of hooking a wingtip on a powerline. It would probably get real noisy for a second or two. Then very quiet…

Yanking and banking the airplane around in order to grab your next pass by the tail will cause you to have your wings flailing about as you stir the stick around and dance on the rudder pedals. I’ve seen it happen lots of times and have found myself doing the same thing; wrestling the airplane around, skidding and trying to herd those last few swath intercept lights into the center. That’s always a good indication that it’s time to back off. It doesn’t do any good to cuss at the lightbar, it’s just doing what it’s told to do.

If there isn’t enough time between your passes, make some. Swing the old bird out and give her some breathing room. Compensate for downwind turns so that your are not clutching back the stick and mashing the bottom rudder pedal to get it around in time. An accelerated stall happens in an eyeblink. At the altitudes we fly, there is no recovery option. Only the thin hope of survival. Very thin.

Back when I first started out, I recall a pilot boast that he “Nibbled at the stall” in just about every turn and if you didn’t, you weren’t trying hard enough. That’s just about the stupidest thing I’ve heard a grown man say. Moronic, actually. If there ever was an equivalent to Russian Roulette in flying, that would be it. If I ever heard anyone say that today, I’d be tempted to hold their head under water. By the way, not long after that conversation, the man broke both legs and his back in a crash. I imagine to this day, he still blames the airplane, or the weather, or the waitress at Denny’s. Who knows?  He doesn’t fly anymore, though. I worry if he was able to impress some feeble minded youngster into taking his word for truth. I hope not.

I know this is preaching to the choir. But, it’s worth discussing. We’re all professionals in a challenging industry. We are also human. We forget things, we get in a rush and we try to cut a corner or two when we probably shouldn’t.

One of the ways to make sure your airplane gets back in the hangar and your feet get under your own dinner table is to turn smoothly. “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.”

Y’all stay safe and fly well!

Editor’s Note: Did you know that Tracy T. Thurman has written several western-themed books that can be downloaded from Born and raised in Tulsa Oklahoma, Tracy served twenty one years in the United States Marine Corps, retiring as a Gunnery Sergeant. Afterward, he followed his dream of flying and love of agriculture by becoming an ag-pilot now flying in California’s Central Valley. However, writing has always been his first calling as evidenced by his excellent column in AgAir Update. He has been writing, “Since I learned how to work a pencil.” Tracy endeavors to keep the great western genre thriving with his books. “My goal is to write and deliver a good, cohesive western story that a reader will enjoy and recommend.” Search Tracy T. Thurman on to review and order Tracy’s books!


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