Flying Training

Lesson 10: Circuits

Sunday 18 December 2005 at 6.30am with Niall Higgins in Citabria VH-RRW

Weather: clear and sunny, but windier than I expected.

Another early start: up at 4.50am, left at 5.15am, arrived Camden 6.00am. Beautiful clear day and a picturesque sunrise with some lovely backlit clouds.

I'd expected the usual early morning calm but found it windy and chilly. I drove around till I found the primary (white) windsock in a field behind the Air Traffic Control tower. Niall later pointed out the secondary windsock (yellow) over by the gliders. And there's an Australian flag which is the most visible wind indicator from the apron. I found out how strong the wind was when I threw away the drained fuel at the end of the preflight and it blew right back in my face rolleyes.

I did the preflight on RRW and had a quick cup of tea and toast, then we buckled in. Niall pointed out that the maintenance release (MR) has not only an expiry date (which was 16/12/06), but also the number of airframe hours (top right). This needs to be compared with the accumulated hours logged each day. The airframe hours are displayed on the rev counter. They kick in when the airspeed reaches a certain threshold value so are different from the engine hours (on the Hobbs meter) which are used for billing. (Kerry told me all this too, but I'd forgotten how the hours worked.)

The taxiing went much better than last week. It's easier if you keep the plane moving at a steady speed (fast walking pace) because if you let it come to a halt you no longer have any steering authority. We taxiied to the runup area for 24, and because the wind was substantial, we pointed the nose into the wind, ie away from the taxiway. It was atmospheric to see a Tiger Moth pull up next to us, but he was soon away.

Runup checks completed we taxiied to the hold point for 24, and then out onto the centreline. Niall had me pick a reference point (a long, low house roof) and keep my eye on that. This time I tried to think ahead to what the aircraft was about to do, ie an initial left yaw from torque and slipstream which was corrected with a little right rudder, and then the gyro effect as the tail was raised, which needed a little more right rudder. Niall had me use up the whole of the runway at half-throttle, practising the steering, and then at the last minute he shoved the throttle forward and we were off, climbing at 80 knots. I picked another reference point (an aerial or mobile phone tower) and kept this to the left of my nose as we climbed to 1000 feet. New rules introduced on 24 November have been interpreted to mean that the crosswind turn is now made at 1000 feet AMSL rather than the previous 700, and I turned right to see what Kerry refers to as the 'lopsided boobies', which I kept on the right of the nose.

On my first circuit I climbed way too high - up to 1800 feet. Ouch. That's the height for incoming traffic. Of course the rule at Camden is to level off at exactly 1300 feet AMSL. Luckily there was only one other plane in the air. Niall explained that the reason for the rapid climb was the headwind, which was about 10 knots straight down the runway. The downwind turn is made at 45° to the end of the runway, and a good guide on runway 24 is that you turn right to follow the river. At the same time you make a downwind call (when the tower is not operating): "Traffic Camden, Romeo Romeo Whisky, Citabria, turning downwind, runway two-four, touch and go." This call needs to be made as you're making the turn, otherwise you're guaranteed to overshoot. [NB: The correct call format is "Camden traffic, Citabria, Romeo Romeo Whisky, turning downwind, runway two-four, Camden." No need to declare your intentions until on final. (3 May 2006)]

On the downwind leg I remembered my Heading - Speed - Height - Spacing mantra. Heading was just to the left of Centrepoint Tower (I said it was a clear day!), speed 90 knots (2400 rpm), height 1300 feet (I got this right on all circuits except that first one) and spacing was the usual 'jury strut on the runway' measurement (also correct on the later circuits - I was too far out on the first one or two).

On at least one of the circuits I even remembered the BUMFISH checks - Brakes (Niall had shown me before our flight a couple of bald patches on a Cessna that resulted from landing with the brakes on), Undercarriage (always down on a Citabria!), Mixture (rich), Fuel (on), Instruments (oil temp & pressure in the green), Switches (ie magnetos on) and Harness (secure).

All too soon it's time for the base turn (on the circuit for 24 this is over a religious centre), so it's carby heat to hot, throttle back to 1500 rpm and make the call while making the turn ("Traffic Camden, Romeo Romeo Whisky, Citabria, turning base, runway two-four, touch and go."). At this point the attitude is very important, and it's literally 'seat of the pants' flying because you feel in your sitting muscles when the world is dropping out from under you, so it's time to give it a little throttle to arrest the descent.

When this close to the ground it's easy to see the effect of wind drift, and we were being carried away from the runway quite noticeably. I learned to correct for this during the lesson, so that I rolled out on the runway centreline (more often than not at least). I noticed one pilot make an "established on final" call, but I don't think I would have time for this and I don't know if it's a requirement (it may be under the new rules). [It is.]

Now on final the mantra is 'Aimpoint, Line, Performance', and those runway numbers must be 1/3 of the way up the windscreen and not moving either up (too low) or down (too high). In order to give me plenty of space for my runway gyrations Niall had me aim pretty much for the overshoot area, and on one occasion said, "Make sure you clear the fence," which just needed a little bit of throttle to float over it on the way to touchdown.

We concentrated on two aspects of the circuit - first, as last week, was my rudder control. Again Niall had me use the whole runway, with the tail up and the throttle halfway, just keeping my eyes on that house roof, anticipating the movements and making gentle corrections that didn't result in us heading for the weeds on the opposite side. This all went better than last week and I began to feel the first inklings of being in control. There was just one scary moment when Niall called out something like, "You've got it!", and I stiffened up on the controls resulting in a rapid departure at 45° and an abrupt takeoff to avoid a runway light. Apart from this it now looks as though I just need practice, as opposed to previous occasions when it looked as though I was never going to be able to remain on the runway while taking off.

The second aspect was the flare, float and touchdown. Niall explained afterwards, using the lift formula, that the purpose of pulling the stick gently back on the flare and during the float is not to do the perfect three-pointer, but is a controlled process of replacing lift lost due to the decreasing speed with extra lift from the increasing angle of attack. It's important to hold the stick firmly during this phase because otherwise the aircraft will do its own thing, generally ballooning if the stick is fractionally too far aft. And this is exactly what I did on the first circuit of the lesson, floating down the runway until we had more of it behind us than ahead and I began to think out loud that going around was looking good. "Well, do it!" said Niall, so it was full throttle, stick back slightly and establish a normal climb out.

The other landings were concluded more successfully. With the wheels on the ground it's important to get that stick right back, especially into a reasonable headwind such as today's. The plan then was to hold it straight (on that reference point) and then take off pretty well at the last minute. Camden has a long runway from a Citabria's perspective.

After 5 circuits it was a full stop landing. This felt the best and most controlled yet until touch down when the aircraft decided to float off into the air again. This was quickly arrested by Niall, and he handed it back to me for some gentle braking and a left turn down a convenient taxiway. Apparently I'd let the stick go - not completely, but I wasn't holding it firmly enough so the plane had its chance to fly and took it. (Those Citabrias really love to fly.)

Well, that's it for another week. I've booked a 9.30am lesson on Saturday (Christmas Eve), which will give me the chance to do circuits under ATC. [note - 9.30am became 6.30 due to forecast strong winds]

Lessons learned

I picked up the following tips during this lesson, and on reading the "Tailwheel Aeroplane Handling" notes given to me by Jim last week:

  1. On takeoff, bring the power up slowly but surely, over 2-3 seconds. This gives you time to anticipate and counteract the torque and slipstream effects.
  2. Bring the tail up early (more slipstream over the rudder), but not quickly (less gyro effect).
  3. The tail should be held well up - this will hold the mainwheels firmly on the tarmac, which will improve the steering. It will also keep the plane from flying off until you're ready (which is at 60 knots).
  4. Keep the tail at a constant (high) attitude until takeoff to minimise further gyro effects.
  5. Climb-out - follow a reference point (nose into wind if necessary) and climb to 1000 feet AMSL before turning crosswind..
  6. Make the downwind and crosswind radio calls as you make the turn.
  7. Downwind leg should be at 2400 rpm, around 90-100 knots.
  8. Before turning base, carby heat to hot and throttle back to 1500 rpm.
  9. Watch the attitude on base - don't sink too fast (literally, use the seat of your pants!). Aim to be at 800 feet AMSL when turning final.
  10. On final - Aimpoint, Line, Performance. Keep the runway numbers at 1/3 the way up the windscreen.
  11. Roundout and float - it's all in the lift formula. You're increasing the angle of attack to replace the lift you lose as you slow down. Hold the stick firmly and resist any temptation to pull it back, which will cause a balloon with the risk of a stall high above the runway.
  12. Keep the stick moving back until you stall about 10 inches above the runway - the only time you want to stall!
  13. Hold the stick back on the rollout, and use the rudder to keep straight. Watch that reference point at the end of the runway.
  14. Lastly, keep the stick back on taxiing. No relaxing till it's parked and the controls locked!