The military uses “on the step” for cruise flight

Northrop T-38, credit wikiWings
Northrop T-38, credit wikiWings

Getting “on the step” is a term and procedure used by the military.  We’ve reviewed several aircraft noted for using the procedure. These include: the B-24 Liberator, Northrop T-38, and the Lockheed U-2 “Dragon Lady.”

The B-24 Liberator is the earliest documented reference we could find. We posted page 68 from the B-24 flight manual that includes illustration and instructions. Flying the B-24 Liberator “on the step” is standard procedure for establishing best performance in level cruise flight. The aircraft manual states to “always level off for cruising from the top in both speed and altitude.”

Charles Thornburgh wrote about flying the U.S. Air force Northrop T-38 “on the step” in his letter to AOPA. And, it’s also said that the Lockheed U-2 spy plane enters best cruise by using momentum from slightly above its selected altitude to get on the step in flight levels FL600 – FL700.

Getting “on the step” by using aircraft momentum from slightly above cruise altitude reduces process variation in establishing best cruise speed, which assists formation flying. Trying to climb into the selected altitude from below requires more process variation to reach best cruise speed, which can be a drag on formation flying.

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