Wing loading - turning radius


In aerodynamics, wing loading is the total weight of an aircraft divided by the area of its wing. The stalling speed of an aircraft in straight, level flight is partly determined by its wing loading. An aircraft with a low wing loading has a larger wing area relative to its mass, as compared to an aircraft with a high wing loading.

The faster an aircraft flies, the more lift can be produced by each unit of wing area, so a smaller wing can carry the same mass in level flight. Consequently, faster aircraft generally have higher wing loadings than slower aircraft. This increased wing loading also increases takeoff and landing distances. A higher wing loading also decreases maneuverability. The same constraints apply to winged biological organisms.

To turn, an aircraft must roll in the direction of the turn, increasing the aircraft’s bank angle. Turning flight lowers the wing’s lift component against gravity and hence causes a descent. To compensate, the lift force must be increased by increasing the angle of attack by use of up elevator deflection which increases drag. Turning can be described as 'climbing around a circle’ (wing lift is diverted to turning the aircraft) so the increase in wing angle of attack creates even more drag. The tighter the turn radius attempted, the more drag induced, this requires that power (thrust) be added to overcome the drag. The maximum rate of turn possible for a given aircraft design is limited by its wing size and available engine power: the maximum turn the aircraft can achieve and hold is its sustained turn performance. As the bank angle increases so does the g-force applied to the aircraft, this having the effect of increasing the wing loading and also the stalling speed. This effect is also experienced during level pitching maneuvers.

As stalling is due to wing loading and maximum lift coefficient at a given altitude and speed, this limits the turning radius due to maximum load factor.

Aircraft with low wing loadings tend to have superior sustained turn performance because they can generate more lift for a given quantity of engine thrust. The immediate bank angle an aircraft can achieve before drag seriously bleeds off airspeed is known as its instantaneous turn performance. An aircraft with a small, highly loaded wing may have superior instantaneous turn performance, but poor sustained turn performance: it reacts quickly to control input, but its ability to sustain a tight turn is limited.

Like any body in circular motion, an aircraft that is fast and strong enough to maintain level flight at speed v in a circle of radius R accelerates towards the center. That acceleration is caused by the inward horizontal component of the lift. This equation for the turning radius is given from Newton’s second law.

Thus, the smaller the wing loading, the tighter the turn.

Related formulas


Rturning radius (m)
Wswing loading (kg/m2)
ρdensity of air (kg/m3)
CLlift coefficient (dimensionless)
θbanking angle (dimensionless)