“Never bank over 30 degrees in the pattern,” and other lessons

Cherokee 140
The Cherokee 140 is a good airplane, but not so much on a hot day.

Back in 1968, I belonged to a flying club with a new 1967 Cherokee 140 at Pascagoula, Mississippi. With my wife and a baby and a 16-year old niece, I flew up to Grove Hill, Alabama, to drop off the niece. The airstrip was oriented east and west in an area where prevailing winds are southwest to northeast. The wind was 10 to 15 mph as I circled to land on the 2000 ft., hard-surfaced strip.

The crosswind blew me a little past the runway line as I came around on final and I banked it left and added a bit of power to get lined up. Things suddenly got quiet and I had an epiphany! For the first time I really understood why my instructors had said never bank over 30 degrees in the pattern. I was on the ragged edge of stalling out!

I made the landing with no problem, other than slightly shaky knees. After dropping off the niece, we lined up to take off in about 90 degrees of temperature and I was not worried because we were only two adults and a baby in a four-place airplane with about a half tank of gas, right? And, the crosswind wasn’t too strong.

As I went over the end of the runway at about 20 feet of altitude, a little red flag went up in my mind, admittedly a bit late. A mile farther a church steeple passed by on my left higher than my altitude. Finally, we got a little altitude and a deep breath of air. I had learned two very dangerous lessons in one approach, landing, and takeoff. We should be home free now!

Low clouds
What’s wrong with this picture?

Staying overnight with some friends at Butler, Alabama, we got socked in the next day and had to stay over until Monday when I was supposed to go to work for my very grouchy employer. By Monday afternoon, get-home-itis was really working on me when a  Cherokee Six landed after a flight from Mobile. He said the way was open, just stay under the clouds.

Not being instrument rated at the time, I took off and started scud running, primarily following a river since otherwise I would be as lost as a barnyard goose. For 100 miles I never got over 100 feet. I wanted to turn around and go back but would have been instantly lost so labored on. Finally, after a gut-wrenching flight we approached Bates Field at Mobile and saw a black wall just southwest of Bates and headed for us. We landed and were immediately in a torrential downpour, which contuinued for hours.

Leaving the plane, a friend picked us up and we went home. Returning after the rain stopped, I fired up the Cherokee to go on the few miles to Jackson field at Pascagoula. It was nearing darkness and when I got to Jackson a low layer of clouds had covered the field. Just as I was pouring the coal to the plane to go back to Bates a hole opened and I saw the runway numbers on my end of the field. A quick yank on the manual flap bar and we dropped with a deep, heartfelt gratitude into the field and parked the plane.

No doubt I was a much wiser boy after those flights but I never mentioned those two flights to anyone until now!

11 Comments

  • I enjoyed the article; it was a good lesson to all of us. Isn’t it strange that even with many hours logged in many different types of airplanes, on most flights you find yourself feeling like you’re in a simulator working some dire problem? If it’s not weather or turbulence it’s ATC and traffic. You’re so busy staying ahead of the airplane that you don’t have time to fully relax. Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be; I don’t know. But at least that’s the way I feel on every flight I take. Anyway, thanks for the story….

  • I’ve read the description of your initial landing incident over and over, and your phrase “things got quiet” keeps jumping out at me. I realize it’s been nearly 50 years, but this doesn’t sound like the description of an incipient stall. It sounds more like an incipient power loss. Maybe carb ice, maybe fuel starvation.

    Fuel tank management can be a tricky business in low wing aircraft – you get to use left or right tank, but not both. The usual rule of thumb is to use the fullest tank for landing, but when there’s a crosswind, gravity comes into play on final. Remember that the bottom of the tank slopes toward the airplane, and fuel feeds from the inboard end of the tank. If you’re landing with a left crosswind, your left wing is down, so the fuel sloshes away from the left side pickup. If the tank is low you can end up pulling air. Better to use the right tank as long as there’s adequate fuel left.

    But now think about what could happen on the base to final turn. You find yourself overshooting the center line, and, minding the “don’t bank more than 30 degrees in the pattern” rule, you bank modestly but step hard on the left pedal. The airplane skids, the fuel in the right tank sloshes to the right, exposing the pickup, and things get real quiet. It’s more important to keep the turn coordinated than to limit to a particular bank angle.

    As long as you haven’t allowed to get way too slow in the pattern, you have plenty of lift reserve. A Cherokee 140 at max gross stalls at a bit under 60 mph, clean. Lift goes with the square of the airspeed, so at the recommended 80 mph pattern speed, you have an available load factor of 1.77. More if you have some flaps down. A 30 degree bank takes a load factor of 1.15; 45 degrees takes 1.4. Even if you’re down to 70 mph the available load factor is 1.36 or more.

    There’s another, more important, reason to keep the base to final turn coordinated. The skid from trying to do that flat turn can kick you into a snap roll, and/or, if you’re too slow, give you a cross-controlled stall which quickly becomes a spin. Both are a bad idea at pattern altitude.

    The 30 degree bank angle limit is only half the answer, and treating it as a rule by itself can be a deadly trap. While not making steep turns in the pattern is always a good idea, the more important rule is to keep your turns coordinated and not try to cheat on a bank angle limit with the rudder. The laws of physics do not tolerate cheating.

    – Andy

    • Thanks for your thoughtful answer.Probably, my number one mistake was in failing to anticipate the fact that the cross wind would sweep me past my point to turn to the runway. I should have gone around.

      • I also fly a Cherokee (as you can probably tell) and I’ve overshot final many times. The important thing is to recognize it, admit it, and then fix it if time and space allow with reasonable maneuvering. If not, then you go around.

        – Andy

  • That’s why I love air facts!

    You get to share and get it off your chest, and we get to learn and live another day, a win-win all around… thanks for sharing 🙂

  • With over 100 years of experience by humans trying to emulate the skills of nature’s natural aviators, the birds, I find it disheartening that CFIs, courtesy of CFR part 91, still try to make pilots believe that angle of bank becomes dangerous at the magic 30 degrees. I sincerely believe that the FAA is at fault in many of these turn to final stall accidents due to their scaring these aviators into believing such BS, thus causing the pilot to enter the panic mode, uncoordinated flight and subsequently exceeding critical angle of attack. The 30 degree angle of bank rule is wrong, dead wrong. It teaches CFIs and student pilots to fear the airplane instead of learning to fly it. It teaches that numbers on an instrument panel and rules in the FARs keep aircraft aloft. They do not. They are only tools. I was trained to fly supersonic aircraft with tiny wings landing at nearly 200 mph close to 50 years ago. I confess, however, that I really learned to fly (after my six years in the USAF) as a “duster pilot.” In my 8 years flying these bi-planes in Texas rice country, I didn’t once see a functioning airspeed indicator or any other flight instrument, for that matter. Why didn’t I crash? I was making turns to final about once every minute all day long at an altitude of maybe 100 feet AGL with most turns at angles of bank exceeding 45 degrees once the max gross weight dropped a bit with the payload decreasing. In the late 1990’s when the A-320 was fairly new, they told us we were being upgraded from pilots to Flight Systems Managers. I’m retired now, but they seem to be changing their minds now about being a manager instead of a pilot. There is no doubt that an airplane can be taken from point A to point B for an entire career by following the rules and the numbers. But stuff happens, and when it does, being able to fly your way out of it can be a good thing. Climb up to altitude with someone qualified to help you, cover up the flight instruments and learn the difference between attitude (pitch & roll) and angle of attack. If you learn to fly by angle of attack, you will be a better and safer VFR pilot (hint- no AOA indicator needed on the panel). Keep those wings flying. Only angle of attack does that.

    • Mike
      The instructor referred to was teaching me in 1967. I think his point (angle of attack was not heard of in 1967 by ordinary people) was simply to be extra careful banking in the pattern since so many were pushing up daisies for too much manuevering at low altitude.

  • I am a student and used to train at KVNY which as you may know has two parallel runways.
    One time on the left base to final turn (16L) I overshot and nearly ventured into ‘no man’s land’-the area between the parallels.
    My instructor grabbed the yoke, cranked it over into what felt like more than a 60 degree bank and steered us back onto the proper glidepath. I have to assume it was coordinated and we were well above 1.3 VSo.
    I don’t remember what he said but it was something on the order of ‘get back over to the left’ or ‘you went too far’.
    On a similar note I now train at Santa Paula and the tight pattern (mountains and 600 agl) and winds frequently require greater than 30 degree banks.

  • I think one of the things we’ve been taught (rectangular pattern with square corners) is responsible for much of my overshooting and steep banks. Coordinated flight and not exceeding critical AOA (as Mike Mc has stated) will keep you out of trouble. I find that my Cherokee 180 favors rounded corners (things happen quicker) and the occasional flight in a Cessna 182 favors squared off corners (things happen slower). Even though the speed numbers say the opposite, it is the visual perception I have and I just do what the individual plane requires to allow me to fly the plane instead of the plane flying me. Also I take into consideration what everybody else in the pattern is doing (standard or non-standard) at that moment.

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