Overhead Break

As a civilian pilot, you might wonder what an overhead break is, and why on earth anyone would want to do one.  It really works best in a fast slippery aircraft with retractable gear, but there are other uses for it as well.

A good example is the L39. At 250 knots at circuit altitude, I line up with the runway I am going to land on, for a long final.  I might make a radio call such as “3 miles initial”. I fly down the runway, in the direction I am going to land on it, still at circuit altitude.  At the end of the (short) runway (for a long runway, 1/2 way down) I turn level towards the downwind leg and pull around +4G’s.  How many G’s you need to pull depends upon the aircraft type, how fast you are going, whether you put the boards out, and what power setting you are using.

The idea is that with the same power setting that you are going to be using during the approach, you bleed off enough speed in the level 180 degree steep turn so that when you roll out on downwind you are right at the gear speed, which in the L39 is 180 knots.

A showy variation on the above is when you dive to the surface overhead and down the runway – instead of being at circuit altitude, normally 1000 AGL piston and 1500 AGL jet - and instead of a level steep turn, you do a climbing steep turn onto downwind. Not really of any great use, but can be fun nonetheless, and it might get you laid.  I doubt it, though.

So, an overhead break is used to get one airplane established on the downwind in landing configuration in a minimal amount of time. This can be handy for several reasons.

An overhead break is very useful when you have many airplanes returning to the airport at the same time. If you try to sequence them the civilian way, with civilian spacing, you will be all day trying to get everyone on the ground, and the radio will be a furball.

Normally you would have 2 or 4 aircraft approaching the airport. For left traffic, they will get in right echelon, for right traffic they will get in left echelon. The lead does all the radio calls. The 2 ship element or 4 ship flight flies down the runway at circuit altitude as described above, then the lead kisses off  #2 with a hand signal and does an overhead break as described above. You could use anything from 3 to 7 seconds, using a hand signal for the number of seconds. Then, #2 breaks, then #3, then #4. If it is performed correctly, they are all spaced out evenly on downwind – a thing of beauty - and touch down one after another on the runway.

With nosewheel aircraft, the landing is simple because everyone can see the airplane in front of them. With tailwheel aircraft that are blind out the front in the landing attitude, there must be an established protocol or SOP for runway positioning on landing because you are blind out the front. Crossing the runway to exit must be done carefully with a guy behind you, who is blind out front.

This all sounds rather baroque, but is actually quite standard and very useful when you have a gaggle of aircraft for some reason. I did it a couple days ago, with a T-6 leading, me in a Pitts, a Christen Eagle, and an MX2. We took off in elements of two and I did the rejoin as the second element lead.  It all went quite well because all of us understood the basics as described above, even though we had never flown together as a flight.


acboyd@gmail.com  Jan 2013