Ab Initio 08 “Round and Round”

In which I commence circuit bashing and try to avoid landing on the go-kart track or bending anything on the aeroplane.

Lesson 5 and the weather had decided to compromise–it wasn’t good enough to do the scheduled lesson on stalls but it was good enough to do circuits instead.

This was the point at which you start going around and around and around going touch and go landings until you can do it correctly without any help. That of course is going to take some time…

I arrived at the airfield to find Laurie filling up the whiteboard in the portacabin with a large annotated diagram of the circuit we’d be flying. Due to the wind direction we’d be using runway 04 which would be a right hand circuit. Right hand circuits I discovered were less often used than left hand ones, primarily because when all the turns are to the right you’re liable to look out the window for the runway and find that all you can see is your passenger’s (or instructor’s) head.

The rather complicated description in the Thom manual seemed somewhat simpler when explained step by step on the board, though it was clearly going to be very busy.

Laurie also offered some tips on judging the correct distances such as keeping the wingtip appearing to just touch the runway in the downwind leg. But when it came to the landing itself there was a shrug, and “It’s something you’ll just learn to judge”.

The aeroplane was checked out and ready to go so we headed straight out to get going.

I managed to get through the checklists and start-up without incident and for once in a way didn’t hang on the starter for too long, as I’d done a number of times before.

Radio call was “Taxy for circuits,” which I found a manageable mouthful and once again we had the place almost to ourselves.

We taxyed out and were briefly thwarted by the sudden disappearance of the windsock when we turned to do our power checks. It had been replaced by the time we were ready to take off though and the wind was very light in any case.

Up to the runway threshold, a rather alarming turn onto the centreline (my taxying still leaves quite a lot to be desired) and we were ready to roll.

Standard takeoff but this time I was busily trying to remember all the things I had to do, with Laurie narrating each point as we came to it.

200′ reached and the first lot of checks. Flaps up (if we’d used them which we hadn’t for a normal takeoff), landing light off (if we’d had it on). Leave go my deathgrip on the throttle and trim for a 70 knot climb with the nose on the horizon tracking towards a little ridge in the distance.

500′ reached and it was time for a good peer around to check there was no one to collide with, then start a gentle climbing turn to the crosswind leg. For some reason I had a tendency throughout the lesson to forget by the end of this turn that we should still be climbing and try and rollout level at the end of it.

However when I remembered what I was doing I continued the climb up to 800′ which is the circuit height at Pembrey. Level off, accelerate up to around 80 knots then bring the power back to around 2200RPM and retrim. Now aiming at a couple of pylons on top of a hill ahead. This was the relatively easy leg. Everything got a lot more complicated after this one.

Judging the right point to start the turn downwind was tricky. I never was good at estimating angles and am hoping it’ll come with practice. But with the runway at 45 degrees behind us it was time to start the turn. I tended to turn a bit too close and either to wander about a bit to get us the right distance out or find Laurie pulling us around to a more appropriate track. A road from the caravan park to the beach was our aiming point and annoyingly I was consistently to the right to it.

A radio call of “Golf Hotel Golf downwind” out of the way as we passed the takeoff end of the runway and we launched into the pre-landing checks. Laurie stepped through them all briskly, accompanied by much umming and erring and searching for controls and switches from me. The first couple of times it took me the entire downwind leg to get them done and I was still fuzzy on them 6 goes later.

Another exercise in angle guessing as we approached the turn onto base and again I tended to turn too soon, which caused problems later on because I wasn’t leaving myself enough final (which was when things got very, very busy indeed!)

As soon as we rolled out on the downwind leg, aiming at an RAF tower on the beach, it was time to back off the power and start descending. Power back to around 1600-1700RPM (the exact figure is something you apparently learn to judge and depends on the wind and weather on any given day). Keep the nose up to let some airspeed bleed off until you have 70 knots then lower the first stage of flap and retrim to hold the airspeed and establish a good descent rate.

We were back to the “attitude to control airspeed and power to control rate of descent” that I’d found such a juggling exercise before and it certainly is going to take a lot of practise to get right. I was all over the place most of the time.

The turn onto final was also a case of something you just have to learn to judge when it looks about right. On this occasion the almost total lack of wind simplified matters a lot but even so I managed to overshoot the turn frequently. Generally I’d be so busy with the descent rate and airspeed that I’d miss the turn until well too late and have to swerve back onto the runway centreline again, usually losing my carefully held airspeed and descent rate in the process.

Once on final there was another radio call to be made somehow while doing everything else as well, second stage of flap to lower (I forget that step all together at least once) and then try not to terrify the go-karters on the bit of ex-runway the other side of the airfield fence by tearing over the top of them at too alarming an angle.

Needless to say, with approaches that confused, the landings themselves were not among the most graceful ever seen and as soon as we were safely on the ground again (due entirely to Laurie and not to me!) it was open the throttle, lots of right rudder to keep straight and straight off again for another go.

As we took off again I pulled up rather too steeply, producing a squeal from the stall warner which made me hastily shoving the nose back down. This rather explained why the lesson on stalls generally comes before starting on circuits. A lot of the time in circuits is spent at low speeds and high angles of attack–prime conditions for stalling.

To avoid the problem recurring, Laurie advised me to ease the backpressure on the yoke once we were off the ground in order to let the speed pick up before establishing the climb out.

I was still being a bit heavy on the controls and ‘relax the back pressure’ ended up as ‘shove the yoke forward’ far too often. I definitely need to work on making much smaller adjustments. The last takeoff of the day was some improvement I thought. No squealing stall warner and a nice gentle climb, it felt noticeably better to me.

45 minutes and 6 circuits later we landed with my brain about to trickle out of my ears. Laurie explained that the circuit lessons would usually be a bit less than the full hour as they were very hard work. For him as well as for me, which I could well believe! I was hugely impressed by both the nerve required to sit calmly while some student flounders their way through the air, and the skill required to fix it when they muck it up too badly.

Instructors are apparently gifted with some kind of sixth sense that enables them to judge when to let you get on and make mistakes and when to step in with prompting and help. Several times I had my hands far too full of aeroplane to think about the radio calls as well so Laurie did them, and twice when I’d come in way too high he took control to sideslip off the excess height before handing control back to me to finish the approach.

It’s a very hands-on, practical style of learning, and I’ve always enjoyed that.

At the risk of going off on a tangent, what it reminded me of more than anything was learning to fight. Now before you think I’m crackers, I should point out that when I’m not fumbling through the sky my other time and money consuming hobby is running around at weekends doing Dark Age historical reenactment. One of the things we do is battle recreations and as we don’t actually want to main each other we train regularly to teach spear and sword fighting skills.

Now when you first start learning to fight you find yourself struggling to just manoeuvre your shield and your spear without tripping yourself up. Add to that trying to defend yourself and watch what the rest of the battlefield is doing and actually hitting the enemy without putting someone’s eye out and you find yourself utterly overwhelmed and surviving about 12 seconds into the battle before getting a spear planted in your backside. After a while though you find that you’re only consciously thinking about getting some shots in on the enemy and keeping an eye on how the battle is progressing. You have time to look around and decide to go and help out that flank over there or reinforce that bit of the line by here. Everything else has become automatic.

In terms of flying–I’m still trying not to trip myself up. But I have every faith that the rest will come.

Back on the ground we spent some time sitting in the cockpit going through the pre-landing checks until I could rattle them off reasonably confidently. For some reason the fuel pump proved a bit of a mental blind spot so this took some time.

In the week since, mentally ‘flying’ the circuit in my imagination, going through the various checks at each stage has become something of a preoccupation. Walking to work, in the bath, queuing in Tescos. I’m sure I must look a wandering lunatic strolling down the street muttering about fuel pumps and carb heat and I have an uncomfortable suspicion that it’ll all fall straight out of my head the moment I’m back in the aeroplane but one can but try.

Weather permitting it’s stalls next up with a few circuits afterwards if there’s time. Still can’t wait.

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