Airplane Maneuver: Pylon Aights

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The objective of the pylon 8 is to develop the ability to fly your aircraft while you are dividing your attention between the airplane’s flight path and the ground reference points. In other words, the FAA wants you to be competent enough to manage your aircraft while your attention is diverted outside for any extended period of time. 

The pylon 8 involves flying your aircraft in two circles about points on the ground, forming an 8 lying parallel with the ground, while you keep your aircraft’s lateral axis (wingtip to wingtip) on the point. However, this is a ground reference maneuver as opposed to a ground track maneuver because you do not make any correction for your ground track. What I mean by not having any ground track correction is that you will make absolutely no correction for wind during the execution of the pylon 8. You drift where you drift and concentrate on holding your wingtip on the pylon.

However, during the pylon 8, if there is any wind blowing you will have a continuous change in your altitude. Your altitude will change as your ground speed changes. Hence, a new term, “pivotal altitude,” has been created. Let me explain.

Pivotal altitude is actually a function of how fast you are traveling over the ground. In calm air, there is an altitude at which you could fly your aircraft about a point, keeping that point directly off the tip of your wing and your altitude would never change. This is pivotal altitude. But the wind is usually blowing, and this causes your ground speed to change, so you have to change your altitude to make up for the ground speed differential as you go from upwind to downwind. The faster your ground speed, the higher your pivotal altitude; the slower your ground speed, the lower your pivotal altitude.

To find your initial pivotal altitude, square your ground speed and divide by 15. For instance, if your aircraft has a ground speed of 100 knots, square it and you get 10,000 knots. Divide the 10,000 by 15 and your pivotal altitude is 666 feet. Now, add this to your terrain elevation and you have an indicated altitude to fly at to initiate the pylon 8.

Does it sound a bit difficult? Let’s run through a set of pylon 8s to try to simplify it for you. To initiate your pylon 8s, first arrive at your pivotal altitude and pick two pylons in an open area. A line drawn between the pylons should be perpendicular to the wind, or crosswind, because you will want to enter the maneuver downwind at a 45-degree angle to, and in between, the pylons.

Okay, you have pivotal altitude attained, pylons picked, and you’re heading downwind between the pylons at a 45-degree angle. As the pylon arrives at the wingtip reference, roll into your bank and place the pylon the same distance above or below your wingtip as the horizon would be in straight-and-level flight. Now, here is the key word that unlocks pylon 8s: anticipate. Anticipation of the ground speed changing as you turn from downwind to upwind allows you to be ready to change your pivotal altitude as need arises.

As you turn from your downwind heading, the ground speed drops and your pylon appears to move forward as seen from its relationship to the wingtip reference. When this occurs, simply move the elevator control forward to maintain the pylon on its original position. When the pylon ceases moving, you are at a pivotal altitude for that particular ground speed and are ready to anticipate the next wind and ground speed change.

Continue around the pylons, keeping in mind where the wind is in relation to your position, and anticipate moving the elevator in the same direction as the pylon moves. When you have turned about the first pylon to the point that the second pylon is at approximately a 45-degree angle to your aircraft, roll out of the turn, and fly straight and level until the second pylon is directly off the wingtip; then roll into the second half of the maneuver. Flying time between the pylons, straight and level, should be about three to five seconds so you have time to clear the area of any other traffic. Remember, as you practice your pylon 8s, you will be very busy with your wingtip reference, so make very sure you use the time to clear the area wisely.

The most common error pilots make in practicing this maneuver is to use their rudder to yaw the aircraft to hold the pylon on the wingtip reference point. While this works, it completely ruins the point of the maneuver and only results in an uncoordinated trip around the py lons. Use rudder only to roll into and out of the pylon 8. This way, the bad habit of skidding the aircraft during the maneuver is never started.

I have heard student pilots talking to each other blasting the pylon 8 as a waste of time, money, and fuel. And, to a point, I suppose they are correct. You will never pylon 8 your way to Chicago or do a pylon 8 in the traffic pattern. But the point they miss is the value of the pylon 8 in learning to fly the airplane by feel. The ability to safely aviate while one’s attention is drawn outside is invaluable. And the coordination learned from varying the bank and pitch while maintaining a circular flight path is something that wouldn’t hurt any pilot.

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