Chapter 6—Ground Reference Maneuvers

Purpose and Scope
Maneuvering By Reference to Ground Objects
Drift and Ground Track Control
Rectangular Course
S-Turns Across a Road
Turns Around a Point
Elementary Eights
    Eights Along a Road
    Eights Across a Road
    Eights Around Pylons
    Eights-On-Pylons (Pylon Eights)
Table of Contents


The pylon eight is the most advanced and most difficult of the low altitude flight training maneuvers. Because of the various techniques involved, the pylon eight is unsurpassed for teaching, developing, and testing subconscious control of the airplane.

As the pylon eight is essentially an advanced maneuver in which the pilot’s attention is directed at maintaining a pivotal position on a selected pylon, with a minimum of attention within the cockpit, it should not be introduced until the instructor is assured that the student has a complete grasp of the fundamentals. Thus, the prerequisites are the ability to make a coordinated turn without gain or loss of altitude, excellent feel of the airplane, stall recognition, relaxation with low altitude maneuvering, and an absence of the error of over concentration.

Like eights around pylons, this training maneuver also involves flying the airplane in circular paths, alternately left and right, in the form of a figure 8 around two selected points or pylons on the ground. Unlike eights around pylons, however, no attempt is made to maintain a uniform distance from the pylon. In eightson- pylons, the distance from the pylons varies if there is any wind. Instead, the airplane is flown at such a precise altitude and airspeed that a line parallel to the airplane’s lateral axis, and extending from the pilot’s eye, appears to pivot on each of the pylons. [Figure 610] Also, unlike eights around pylons, in the performance of eights-on-pylons the degree of bank increases as the distance from the pylon decreases.

The altitude that is appropriate for the airplane being flown is called the pivotal altitude and is governed by the groundspeed. While not truly a ground track maneuver as were the preceding maneuvers, the objective is similar—to develop the ability to maneuver the airplane accurately while dividing one’s attention between the flightpath and the selected points on the ground.

In explaining the performance of eights-on-pylons, the term “wingtip” is frequently considered as being synonymous with the proper reference line, or pivot point on the airplane. This interpretation is not


Figure 6-10. Eights-on-pylons.

always correct. High-wing, low-wing, sweptwing, and the correct performance of eights-on-pylons, as in other tapered wing airplanes, as well as those with tandem or maneuvers requiring a lateral reference, the pilot should side-by-side seating, will all present different angles from use a sighting reference line that, from eye level, parallels the pilot’s eye to the wingtip. [Figure 6-11] Therefore, in the lateral axis of the airplane.

Line of sight

Figure 6-11. Line of sight.

The sighting point or line, while not necessarily on the wingtip itself, may be positioned in relation to the wingtip (ahead, behind, above, or below), but even then it will differ for each pilot, and from each seat in the airplane. This is especially true in tandem (fore and aft) seat airplanes. In side-by-side type airplanes, there will be very little variation in the sighting lines for different persons if those persons are seated so that the eyes of each are at approximately the same level.

An explanation of the pivotal altitude is also essential. There is a specific altitude at which, when the airplane turns at a given groundspeed, a projection of the sighting reference line to the selected point on the ground will appear to pivot on that point. Since different airplanes fly at different airspeeds, the groundspeed will be different. Therefore, each airplane will have its own pivotal altitude. [Figure 6-12] The pivotal altitude does not vary with the angle of bank being used unless the bank is steep enough to affect the groundspeed. A rule of thumb for estimating pivotal altitude in calm wind is to square the true airspeed and divide by 15 for miles per hour (m.p.h.) or 11.3 for knots.

Speed vs. pivotal altitude

Figure 6-12. Speed vs. pivotal altitude.

Distance from the pylon affects the angle of bank. At any altitude above that pivotal altitude, the projected reference line will appear to move rearward in a circular path in relation to the pylon. Conversely, when the airplane is below the pivotal altitude, the projected reference line will appear to move forward in a circular path. [Figure 6-13]

To demonstrate this, the airplane is flown at normal cruising speed, and at an altitude estimated to be below the proper pivotal altitude, and then placed in a medium-banked turn. It will be seen that the projected reference line of sight appears to move forward along the ground (pylon moves back) as the airplane turns.

A climb is then made to an altitude well above the pivotal altitude, and when the airplane is again at normal cruising speed, it is placed in a medium-banked turn. At this higher altitude, the projected reference line of sight now appears to move backward across the ground (pylon moves forward) in a direction opposite that of flight.

After the high altitude extreme has been demonstrated, the power is reduced, and a descent at cruising speed begun in a continuing medium bank around the pylon. The apparent backward travel of the projected reference line with respect to the pylon will slow down as altitude is lost, stop for an instant, then start to reverse itself, and would move forward if the descent were allowed to continue below the pivotal altitude.

The altitude at which the line of sight apparently ceased to move across the ground was the pivotal altitude. If the airplane descended below the pivotal altitude, power should be added to maintain airspeed while altitude is regained to the point at which the projected reference line moves neither backward nor forward but actually pivots on the pylon. In this way the pilot can determine the pivotal altitude of the airplane.

The pivotal altitude is critical and will change with variations in groundspeed. Since the headings throughout the turns continually vary from directly downwind to directly upwind, the groundspeed will constantly change. This will result in the proper pivotal altitude varying slightly throughout the eight. Therefore, adjustment is made for this by climbing or descending, as necessary, to hold the reference line or point on the pylons. This change in altitude will be dependent on how much the wind affects the groundspeed.

The instructor should emphasize that the elevators are the primary control for holding the pylons. Even a very slight variation in altitude effects a double correction, since in losing altitude, speed is gained, and even a slight climb reduces the airspeed. This variation in altitude, although important in holding the pylon, in most cases will be so slight as to be barely perceptible on a sensitive altimeter.

Before beginning the maneuver, the pilot should select two points on the ground along a line which lies 90° to the direction of the wind. The area in which the maneuver is to be performed should be checked for obstructions and any other air traffic, and it should be located where a disturbance to groups of people, livestock, or communities will not result.

The selection of proper pylons is of importance to good eights-on-pylons. They should be sufficiently prominent to be readily seen by the pilot when completing the turn around one pylon and heading for the next, and should be adequately spaced to provide time

Effect of different altitudes on pivotal altitude

Figure 6-13. Effect of different altitudes on pivotal altitude.

for planning the turns and yet not cause unnecessary straight-and-level flight between the pylons. The selected pylons should also be at the same elevation, since differences of over a very few feet will necessitate climbing or descending between each turn.

For uniformity, the eight is usually begun by flying diagonally crosswind between the pylons to a point downwind from the first pylon so that the first turn can be made into the wind. As the airplane approaches a position where the pylon appears to be just ahead of the wingtip, the turn should be started by lowering the upwind wing to place the pilot’s line of sight reference on the pylon. As the turn is continued, the line of sight reference can be held on the pylon by gradually increasing the bank. The reference line should appear to pivot on the pylon. As the airplane heads into the wind, the groundspeed decreases; consequently, the pivotal altitude is lower and the airplane must descend to hold the reference line on the pylon. As the turn progresses on the upwind side of the pylon, the wind becomes more of a crosswind. Since a constant distance from the pylon is not required on this maneuver, no correction to counteract drifting should be applied during the turns.

If the reference line appears to move ahead of the pylon, the pilot should increase altitude. If the reference line appears to move behind the pylon, the pilot should decrease altitude. Varying rudder pressure to yaw the airplane and force the wing and reference line forward or backward to the pylon is a dangerous technique and must not be attempted.

As the airplane turns toward a downwind heading, the rollout from the turn should be started to allow the airplane to proceed diagonally to a point on the downwind side of the second pylon. The rollout must be completed in the proper wind correction angle to correct for wind drift, so that the airplane will arrive at a point downwind from the second pylon the same distance it was from the first pylon at the beginning of the maneuver.

Upon reaching that point, a turn is started in the opposite direction by lowering the upwind wing to again place the pilot’s line of sight reference on the pylon. The turn is then continued just as in the turn around the first pylon but in the opposite direction.

With prompt correction, and a very fine control touch, it should be possible to hold the projection of the reference line directly on the pylon even in a stiff wind. Corrections for temporary variations, such as those caused by gusts or inattention, may be made by shallowing the bank to fly relatively straight to bring forward a lagging wing, or by steepening the bank temporarily to turn back a wing which has crept ahead. With practice, these corrections will become so slight as to be barely noticeable. These variations are apparent from the movement of the wingtips long before they are discernable on the altimeter.

Pylon eights are performed at bank angles ranging from shallow to steep. [Figure 6-14] The student should understand that the bank chosen will not alter the pivotal altitude. As proficiency is gained, the instructor should increase the complexity of the maneuver by directing the student to enter at a distance from the pylon that will result in a specific bank angle at the steepest point in the pylon turn.

Bank angle vs. pivotal altitude

Figure 6-14. Bank angle vs. pivotal altitude.

The most common error in attempting to hold a pylon is incorrect use of the rudder. When the projection of the reference line moves forward with respect to the pylon, many pilots will tend to press the inside rudder to yaw the wing backward. When the reference line moves behind the pylon, they will press the outside rudder to yaw the wing forward. The rudder is to be used only as a coordination control.

Other common errors in the performance of eights-onpylons (pylon eights) are:

  • Failure to adequately clear the area.
  • Skidding or slipping in turns (whether trying to hold the pylon with rudder or not).
  • Excessive gain or loss of altitude.
  • Over concentration on the pylon and failure to observe traffic.
  • Poor choice of pylons.
  • Not entering the pylon turns into the wind.
  • Failure to assume a heading when flying between pylons that will compensate sufficiently for drift.
  • Failure to time the bank so that the turn entry is completed with the pylon in position.
  • Abrupt control usage.
  • Inability to select pivotal altitude.

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PED Publication