Stay On Your Feet

The proper use of rudder pedals is prudent for all phases of flight.

Turn Coordinator

Turn Coordinator

We’ve all heard it. “More right rudder!” is such a common command during flight training that some avionics company would probably make a lot of money producing a small device that could transmit the instruction at the push of a button. But just because the most common place for an instructor to address rudder input is during the climb doesn’t mean the pedals should be ignored during the rest of the flight.

Unfortunately, the training airplanes of today are so forgiving that they fly just fine without the proper use of rudder, at least as long as the flight attitude is somewhat stable. And with the exception of the climb phase, it seems that many instructors don’t put enough emphasis on rudder control.

But the incorrect use of the rudder pedals won’t just make the airplane feel uncoordinated. Stomp on one of the pedals when you’re low and slow, and you may end up in the dirt much quicker than anticipated and pay the ultimate price for your mistake. There are way too many stall/spin accidents causing far too many deaths. Paying attention to the rudder input can help prevent these accidents. Correct rudder input will also help increase your cruise speed and prevent side-loaded landings.

The rudder controls the rotation around the vertical axis of the airplane – a motion also called yaw. You can also think of it as the way the nose moves back and forth toward each wingtip. Correct rudder application makes the longitudinal axis – the straight line from nose to tail - follow the airplane’s path of travel. That is what coordination is all about. If you can’t feel whether you’re coordinated, just look at the little ball inside the inclinometer at the bottom part of the turn coordinator. The ball needs to be inside the lines. Correct rudder application is simple – just add right rudder if the ball is displaced to the right or left rudder if the ball is displaced to the left. You may have heard “step on the ball,” but the question is: Is the ball a part of your regular scan?

If you’re flying an airplane with a glass panel display, the “ball” is located the top of the PFD where you’ll find a small arrow with a line underneath it. I like to call it the sailboat – the arrow part being the sail, the line below the boat. You need to keep the sail over the boat to stay coordinated. If the boat slips to the right or left of the sail, step on the appropriate rudder pedal to center the boat under the sail.

During the climb, the airplane experiences several factors that make it want to yaw to the left. This is why you continuously need to apply rudder (or use the rudder trim, if you have it) to keep the airplane coordinated. It is particularly important to maintain coordination during the climb since the airplane is in a high pitch angle and slow. Uncoordinated flight in this flight attitude can have severe consequences.

The rudder isn’t as important during the cruise. Slight deviation from coordinated flight won’t hurt you or the airplane, but you’re going to lose efficiency. The airplane will fly slower and, through the course of the flight, you will burn more fuel or pay a higher rate for your rental airplane.

To keep the airplane coordinated during a turn, you need to apply rudder in the direction of the turn. If you don’t, the tail of the airplane will essentially slip outside its path of travel. Too much rudder and the airplane will skid – the tail will point to the inside of the turn.

While flying uncoordinated in cruise flight or during a cruise turn won’t damage your airplane, poor rudder input during the approach and landing phase may. A stall/spin accident can happen during a base-to-final turn when the pilot overcompensates for overshooting the final leg by applying too much bank and too much rudder. The airplane is too slow to maintain lift at a steep bank angle and the incorrect use of rudder makes the airplane uncoordinated. The unfortunate result is a stall and spin at an unrecoverable altitude. To prevent this situation, make shallow, coordinated turns in the pattern and simply go around if the approach is way off.

When you get close to the runway, pay attention to where the nose of the airplane is pointing. If the nose is pointed off to one side of the centerline and your path of travel is straight down the runway, apply rudder in the opposite direction of where the nose is pointing to align the longitudinal axis of the fuselage with the path of travel. Otherwise the airplane will land side-loaded, meaning it will land with the wheels angled, essentially touching down on the sidewall of the tires instead of the tread. This could, at best, damage the tires or landing gear and, at worse, smash up the airplane and injure its occupants. The consequences of landing side-loaded are much greater in a tailwheel airplane than in an airplane with tricycle gear. A side-loaded landing in a tailwheel airplane could result in a ground loop, which can come with very serious penalties.

Regardless of the type of airplane you fly, give the rudder the respect it deserves. You will fly more efficiently and safer, and your airplane will be thankful, too.