Thursday, September 17, 2009

Round and round, round and round...

It's part of every pilot's life - flying circuits. When you start your training you go off and do straight and level, climbing and descending, turns... but what you are really waiting for is to get back into the circuit and start going...round and round.
By the time you have gone solo you are sick of going round and round, and then after solo find yourself doing some more of it! It's one of the things that doesn't go away, it's there the whole time you are a pilot.
I've come to love flying circuits. The transformation happened at some stage during my training and it's stayed with me. I remember one beautiful evening, the sun low in the sky, the convective disarray of the day all but gone, flying 500' circuits and practising engine failures. I would climb to 500' and then at some random spot close the throttle and glide back to land. I suddenly realised that I had become "good enough" at this that it was fun. It wasn't a burden and in fact it was Zen-like in its simplicity and pleasure. Some circuits I would glide in, turning, turning, almost below hangar height to roll the wings level just as I touched down half way up the strip. On others I would bring the aircraft in with a steep sideslip and straighten things out just in time to flair. I could have gone on and on but the light intervened. The last landing was like feeling for your slippers on a dark morning...I know the runway is just here somewhere, hold her off, hold her off...I knew it was there!
I used to go and practice forced landings on a little dirt strip. It had a few little quirks. On final at the north end there were a couple of large trees, you needed to work out ahead of time which side you would fly of each tree. The strip was pretty short and had another little trap. Just in the touchdown zone at the north end the strip fell away about 30-40' quite suddenly. You would flair and then realise that you were getting higher and higher off the ground! The idea was to come in very close to the end of the strip and try to get down on the ground before the strip dropped away. The problem was that the fence was exactly on the threshold of the strip! It was marked with some white rags, and just waited there for the unwary.
The process went something like this: Cut the power overhead, aim for base point at 1000' then turn final at 500' (but you were always lower). The ground fell towards the strip so you would leave the first tree to the right as you turned final, leave the second tree to the left, aim for the threshold, using everything but power to get the aircraft to the right spot. Watch that fence, in fact watch it all the way until it passed safely under your wheels and then concentrate on getting the aircraft down on the ground. Now go and do it again!
The other thing about circuits is that you only get one landing per circuit (none of us bounce our landings do we?) so in that way it's like practicing a golf swing. You hit the ball and if you get it wrong you have to do it all over again, you can't correct it after its gone.
There's a new aircraft on line where I sometimes fly so this week I went with my daughter and we both got signed off in it. It was a beautiful day and the grass airstrip looked so enticing. We both have quite a few hours in this aircraft type so it was a bit of a formality. My daughter hadn't flown for a few weeks so it was a chance for her to brush up. She is the master of the landing. She has beautiful hands and feet for a pilot, a really deft touch and all of her "ground proximity" flying is a pleasure to watch. I on the other hand could best be described as "agricultural" in my flying. It works but it sometimes ain't pretty!
Flying the Savage Classic though has done wonders for my landings. They are much softer and more graceful than they were, not at all the arrivals they can be. My daughter on the other hand stuffed up her first landing. This reversal of fortune was so unusual that I gleefully filed it away for future use!
It was only the one landing that she stuffed up however. After we'd each flown a few circuits (what do you call them in North America?) we happily headed home. She said thoughtfully, reflecting on her few weeks break from flying "you don't ever forget, it's just that you need some practice". That's what currency is about I guess.
Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons pic by Sciacchitano

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