There’s a right and wrong way to fly an airplane onto the step

We’re continuing a review of several articles written about flying an airplane on the step. These articles, from the past decade and current year, are valuable contributions to help us better understand flying – in level cruise flight. Simple right?

In May 2016, Barry Schiff published “Stepping Along, on the step: fact or fiction.” He shares another good story about a pilot who steadfastly maintained that he could prove the existence of the “step” and volunteered to show Barry in his Beech Bonanza. Barry conceded and the test flight began in smooth air over Los Angeles California.

First attempt, flying on the step

The target cruise altitude was 6,500 feet. They passed through the selected VFR altitude during climb and at 6,900 feet the pilot slowly pushed the nose down and entered a shallow dive. Moments later, the airplane had stabilized in cruise flight at 159 knots indicated.

Second attempt, flying on the step

“After this first test phase was concluded, [they] descended a few thousand feet and began the second and comparative phase. As [they] once again approached 6,500 feet during the climb, the pilot leveled off in a conventional manner. When the aircraft had once again stabilized in cruise flight, the indicated airspeed was only 155 knots, 4 knots slower than when flying ‘on the step.’ The pilot folded his arms across his chest and directed a smug expression of victory in [Barry’s] direction.”

Third attempt, flying on the step

Barry observed that this pilot had prematurely reduced from climb power to cruise power setting. He asked the pilot if he could fly his airplane for a few minutes. After descending to 4,500 feet, Barry resumed a normal climb and leveled off at the target altitude. But instead of reducing the throttle, he “patiently waited for the airplane to accelerate until it would accelerate no more.”  Barry then retarded the power to the same cruise settings used earlier.   “The airplane slowed gradually, and when it had stabilized, guess what? The indicated airspeed was identical to the speed achieved by diving the airplane onto the step.”

Barry says, “many pilots tend to prematurely and impatiently reduce power after leveling off. The throttle (and the propeller control, when applicable) often is retarded before the airplane has had a chance to accelerate to normal cruise speed.  In a sense, the airplane is established in a subtle form of mushing flight.”

Pilot Observations
  1. Experienced pilots can and do err in establishing best performance for level cruise flight.
  2. Best cruise performance can be established by flying either from above or below into the selected cruise altitude.
  3. Barry doesn’t expilcate variables that may affect entering cruise flight from below.  But one factor is the need for speed.
Flying the step, 2008 Cirrus SR22TN Turbo Perspective, FL180, TAS 186 kts, GS 192 kts, credit wikiWings
Flying “on the step”, 2008 Cirrus SR22TN Turbo Perspective, FL180, TAS 186 kts, GS 192 kts, 75% Pwr, 2510 RPM, 29.6 MP, 15.5 GPH, credit wikiWings

First, I’m reluctant to raise my hand, but now I realize I’ve pulled the power back too soon on more than one flight over the years. A Cirrus SR22TN Turbo may require up to 2 minutes at full power to pull the plane into level cruise flight. The amount of time can vary based on several variables. For a list, see last week’s post Here’s an example of flying on the step.

Second, is getting an airplane “on the step” a myth or is it using the correct procedure to ensure a plane is established in level cruise flight for best performance?  I believe getting “on the step” and establishing best cruise performance are two sides of the same coin.

Many thanks to Barry Schiff and Linda Pendleton for writing on this topic.  It encourages us to continually evaluate our flying.

Reference

Schiff, Barry “Stepping Along ‘On the step’ Fact or fiction?,” AOPA Pilot, May 2016, p18.

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