“The Guide says there is an art to flying”, said Ford, “or rather a knack. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.”
― Douglas Adams, Life, the Universe and Everything
The above quote rings true particularly when I was learning to fly in the RAF and again in civilian street. As such, people may sympathise with what I say next.
Learning to land is probably one of the hardest things a trainee pilot has to go through in their early aviation career. Unless, you have a natural knack or ‘believe’ your instructor when he/she says keep coming down, even though you feel like you’re going to bury the nose in the ground. After you have learnt the basics of flight i.e. the forces and control in ascent, descent, turning straight and level flight these skills are combined and practiced to create a recognisable circuit pattern to land at an airfield/airport leading up to your first solo.
As a refresh, a normal circuit pattern looks like the below:
For this article I will focus on the use of civilian circuits. At this stage in training you will be taught the ‘normal’ circuit depicted above. There are 2 other circuit types known as: the bad weather circuit and the glide circuit. The bad weather speaks for itself, and why it is used (also is very similar to a military normal circuit). The glide circuit is never usually used in reality (unless in emergency) but is taught to demonstrate the principles of an approach without power and the practice of landing on an aiming point just by using the wing angle of attack or near as possible aircraft attitude and the usage of flap.
I will not teach you how to conduct the circuit because the book PPL1 – Flying Training gives a very good description and illustrated guidance, but I will share with you some lessons that I have learnt in mastering any circuit. At this stage in training you will be focusing on the following:
- Becoming familiar with your airfield
- Mastering the aircraft checks
- Basic airfield radio communications
- Take off procedures
- Each leg of the circuit and circuit procedures
- Landing and runway vacation
First off let me emphasize the importance of prior preparation in particular if you are investing in this for yourself. A handy tip that I would recommend is to keep a flying ‘handbook’. What this means is to journalise each flight with what went well and even better if under each element practiced in the lesson. Do this for every flight you do, you quickly realise; it becomes a bible of lessons learned and a fountain of knowledge which you can turn to quickly and easily as you have written it. Likewise, remember before doing your first solo you are required to have completed your Air Law ground exam.
By this point you will have had a number of lessons. Therefore, number one and two is a matter of practice and ensuring that you DO NOT overlook or underestimate the importance of any aircraft or airborne checks. One of the hardest parts to then gain confidence in is the communications on the ground and in the air. It is often referred to as learning a new language with words that you know but don’t yet understand. For the purpose of your first solo all you will need to know are airfield communications on the ground and those in the circuit. These differ based on 2 primary factors: is the airfield a controlled airfield and therefore, controls a certain amount of airspace and because of this what type of communication service the station provides? If the aircraft is not a controlled airfield i.e. an air/ ground communications service (AGCS – a simple ‘radio’ service that provides airfield information and cannot tell you much more than basic weather), or an information service (manned by more qualified personnel that can provide you with weather, a position service and more detailed airfield information) are both uncontrolled services and generally expect most aircraft to ensure their own safe separation and only assist in the safe transit of aircraft. On the other hand, if an aircraft is at a controlled airfield i.e. an Air Traffic Service (manned by qualified air traffic controllers that often can provide a radar service, several service types and provide clearances), radio communications can be more detailed. In any case, in the circuit, radio transmissions (RT) are the same at every airfield, the difference is usually on the ground and how much RT is thrown at you usually differs depending on the type of service offered at the airfield. As always, your instructor is the best port of call for RT at your individual airfield. The key lesson here on RT is if you are at an uncontrolled airfield then RT is used to ensure that you receive relevant information to aid your safe passage of flight but to also announce your position to other aircraft in the circuit to ensure they know where you are. If you are in a controlled airfield, you take direction from ATC as they ensure the safe separation and flight of aircraft in the circuit. However, a key point to note here is that ATC are not accountable for the aircraft you fly. Therefore, as the pilot in command it is your responsibility to maintain safe conduct of flight and as such, if you cannot comply with ATC instruction as it compromises safe flight or your ability to provide safe flight, you must say you cannot comply with it.
Take off procedures are generally standard amongst most airfield and the differences arise depending on aircraft type; if the aircraft being flown is a propeller engine aircraft the amount of opposite rudder application to the direction of the propeller spin and the defined rotation (lift off) speeds for the aircraft. The lesson here is to ensure upon lift off that you know the local features to avoid flying over or object clearance close to the runway.
The circuit, as seen from the picture is split into 4 legs. The legs that require most concentration are the downwind leg and the final leg. The downwind leg requires a RT call to announce your position and intentions in amongst a set of checks remembered by an acronym – BUMFITCH (Brakes, undercarriage, mixture, Fuel & Flaps, Instruments [Compass & Heading Indicator], Oil Temps and pressures, carburetor heat, hatches & harnesses). This is a case of practice makes perfect. This is also the same for the final leg which is preceded by reconfiguring the aircraft for a descent on the base leg. The best landings are preceded by a well timed reconfiguration and well flown approach. This is especially prudent in gusty conditions. On the final approach, you need to reaffirm your position and intentions with the station service and now pick a spot on the runway to aim for, usually the second arrow before the runway piano keys, and then fly to that point adjusting attitude, power and flap accordingly to hit that spot. This is harder in gusty conditions as it can feel like you are approaching the runway sideways, which is often known as a crabbed approach.
Once over your point, all power should be removed at which you shouldn’t be more than approx. 20ft off the ground. In calm conditions, all you have to do is point the nose forward and apply gentle back pressure to ensure your back wheels touch the ground and keep applying back pressure until the aircraft can no longer hold the nose wheel in the air. The hard part is when you have gusty conditions as seen in with the dash 8 above. Once over your point, with no or a very small amount of power, apply rudder and opposite aileron and repeat to keep the aircraft centered. The wheel on the side with applied aileron will touch first quickly followed by the opposite side. Whilst you do this, ensure to apply continuous back pressure to ensure a gentle touch of the nose wheel. This along with the judgement of knowing when to pull up to ‘flare’ to glide above the runway and then applying rudder and aileron is in my opinion the hardest lesson to learn for a novice pilot.
Circuits are fundamental to safe and accurate flying and the skills learned here on the start blocks will be used in every aspect of the course. The circuit is just the beginning to one of the best experiences and privileges I have come to appreciate and only gets better as your progress your understanding. Take away some of these lessons and any frustration will hopefully dwindle in a matter of lessons.