Flying Training

Lesson 22: Circuits - Pre-solo check flight

Saturday 22 April 2006, 7.00am with Jim Drinnan in Citabria VH-RRW

Weather: clear and cold. Wind 230° at 3kt (higher at circuit height, and increased as the flight progressed)

The flight | After the flight (a drive around Camden) | Emails

The Flight

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Woke up at 5am in the pitch black and arrived at Camden just before sunrise after a chilly drive down (the car heater is faulty). The air temperature was 3°C but there was no wind. The usual early-morning crew were there - Jim Drinnan, Neil Tucker, Anita, Tim and quite a few others. Jim told me to check out RRW, as I'd be flying with him to see how much I've learned.

RRW was already outside the hangar, with over 100 litres of fuel, 6 quarts oil and a few hours still remaining before its next major service (though the hours hadn't been recorded the previous day). I went through the preflight very carefully, filled out the paperwork and grabbed a headset. Jim didn't do any preflight briefing, as the purpose of the flight was not so much instruction as to find out what I knew.

Click to enlarge Jim got in and fastened his harness, and I followed. Found that the windscreen was still covered in condensation, but Jim said this would clear quickly once the engine started if we left the door open, and this proved to be the case. Starting procedure with it being so cold was 4 strokes of the priming pump and then throttle fully forward and back twice before leaving it at ½" as usual. The engine took a little longer than usual to start but ran smoothly. At Jim's prompting we taxied forward slightly and turned right so that our propwash wasn't straight onto the people standing around WKM behind us. We checked the ATIS, confirmed that the wind was light and variable and set the altimeter, then switched to tower frequency: 120.1MHz. Since the relative humidity was high, I set carburettor heat to hot whilst taxiing; Jim suggested I set it back to cold as we approached the run-up bay so we could identify whether there was any carburettor icing during the run-up checks.

On the way to the run-up bay I made a CTAF call to say we were taxiing for runway 24, and there was a response from the Cessna 182 ahead saying he had been planning to use 06. Jim said that the wind at circuit height was from the SW so we'd prefer to use 24. A pilot either overhead or who had just landed confirmed this, so 24 it was.

We taxiied for the run-up area, and since the winds were light didn't point the plane into wind, but towards the taxiway. I did the smoothest run-up checks I could, and while we taxiied to the hold point followed up with a safety briefing. This covered the actions to take if we had problems before or during takeoff, after takeoff with and without runway remaining, and on crosswind or downwind. Jim also added the procedure for an in-flight fire - master switch OFF.

Click to enlarge At the hold point I looked both ways to make sure there was no unannounced traffic on finals or about to take-off, and made a call: "Camden traffic, Citabria RRW entering and rolling runway 24 for circuits", taking care not to release the transmit switch before I'd finished speaking. I lined up on the centreline, rolled a few feet to straighten the tailwheel, then smoothly opened the throttle to full while releasing the back pressure on the stick. Tail up, keep straight with rudder and we were off. Found my extended reference point (a power or mobile phone tower ahead) and trimmed for 70 knots. At 800' I looked left, then around to the right - all clear - before making a gentle climbing turn onto crosswind. Levelling out on 1300' I made another call, "Camden traffic, Citabria RRW turning downwind, runway 24" and made the turn.

On downwind I kept us lined up on Chatswood and at 1300', whilst keeping the jury strut on the runway centreline. Engine rpm was 2200, and I had time to mentally make the downwind checks - BUMFISH - and listen out for other traffic, then check to see them entering the runway and taking off. Two wing chords past the threshold I pulled carby heat to hot and reduced power to 1500 rpm, then made the call, "Camden traffic, RRW turning base, runway 24." At this point Jim wasn't quite happy with my circuit and said, "So make the turn!" He reminded me to Aviate, Navigate, Communicate, in that order. It's not just to make tidy circuits either; as Kerry as said, the whole purpose of flying a circuit is to keep within gliding distance of the airfield if you have an engine failure. Radio calls, no matter how professional they sound, cannot be allowed to interfere with this primary objective.

Click to enlarge I reduced power to idle (at Jim's suggestion), checked I was travelling at 90° to the runway and called final, then concentrated on keeping us straight and on the aim point a couple of white lines in from the threshold. Here's where I made the first of two errors. Remembering Kerry's comments about flaring too early, this time I left it too late. I basically flew it into the ground, bounced and felt Jim decisively jam the stick forwards before he handed it back to me to make a more normal landing. After I'd powered up again, taken off and established a climb I said, "What did I do wrong there?" "You didn't flare!" was the sharp response, and then Jim was silent as I started the next circuit.

Again Jim prompted me to take the power all the way off on base, and this time I made a better landing. As we rolled to the taxiway, Jim told me to look at the nose attitude and said, "That's where it should be on landing," and this helped for the remainder of the flight. Another tip, since the wind was increasing, was to turn slightly less than 90° on crosswind, so that we were pointed slightly into wind to compensate. Jim also commented a couple of times that I was using too much rudder, so then it was a matter of releasing rudder pressure and/or increasing the bank angle slightly. At least he didn't at any point say I wasn't using enough rudder. [Later - my understanding of the purpose and use of the rudder has been tidied up by reading 'Stick and Rudder' by Wolfgang Langewiesche.]

I believe it was on the second circuit that Jim figured out why the radio was turned up so loud. Seems there's a volume control on the side of the headset. I didn't even know it was there! I wondered why I couldn't hear myself speak.

My second mistake came after a few nice, smooth landings. On this one I pulled the stick back a fraction too much as we were slowing down just above the runway, and, in Jim's words, "overreacted". I think the overreaction was mainly verbal because I did recover a normal attitude and put it down safely. Not sure if Jim had any control input here - I hope not.

On a couple of circuits I was too high on final and had to sideslip to lose height without gaining speed. I chose to bank left and used right rudder to keep straight down the centreline, and by Jim's, "Good boy," he seemed to be quite happy with this aspect of my flying.

Click to enlarge On the last couple of circuits we had a distinct crosswind (the wind was blowing from the south), so Jim had me hold the left wing down slightly on short final. This adds one more thing to think about, as you're now trying to not only pull the stick back at just the right rate to raise the nose and correct the sink, but also hold it at just the right angle to keep that wing down. Meanwhile, of course, since the wing down attitude would otherwise induce a yaw to the left, you're holding in just the right amount of rudder to keep the aircraft pointed straight down the centreline. Obviously it all comes with practice, but right now it needs some clear thinking and sharp reactions.

The last two circuits were a little slow and wide because we found ourselves following another aircraft which descended to circuit height just ahead of us. Jim's comment was, "They shouldn't have done that," but since the pilot duly apologised afterwards I'm treating it as another learning experience and a reminder to listen out on the radio, build a mental picture of the traffic and keep a good lookout.

Click to enlarge After an hour, Jim said, "That was a good landing to end on. Just brake and exit at the next taxiway," and we taxiied back to the apron and parked it facing into wind. Jim gave me a postflight debrief while sitting in the aeroplane, and basically said that I was solo material, but that there was just too much traffic to fly solo today. I'd overreacted once (when I ballooned during the hold-off) but I'd corrected well, and if I could continue to recover after such events then that was good. I followed up with a phone call later, and he confirmed that if I could come along at the same time next week, and we could use the grass strip, then a solo was on the cards.

So, I'm well pleased with the flight, but of course slightly apprehensive at the idea of flying a circuit on my own. As the flying training manual says, it's just one take-off, one circuit and one landing, and it's just repeating what you've already done many times (in my case probably 80-90 times!), but the difference is that there's no instructor to bail you out if you go wrong. Accompanying the apprehension, though, is a feeling that I can do this; that I can stay ahead of the plane and actually fly it, not let it fly me, and this feels very good indeed.

The flight | After the flight (a drive around Camden) | Emails

Afterwards (a drive around Camden)

Click to enlargeOn the way home I detoured around the surrounding housing developments to see what the flying activity looked like from there. The answer was 'busy'. At one point there were 5 aircraft queued up on the taxiway for 24. The other purpose in these meanderings was to see what possible emergency landing fields might look like close-up. There weren't too many spaces in amongst the houses, but further away there were some market gardens which were at least largely free of power poles, although the surface could be rough.

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Takeoff from 24
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Rural peace
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Under the flightpath
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SDH over Camden
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Camden mansions
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Camden backyards
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Market gardens
The flight | After the flight (a drive around Camden) | Emails

Post-flight Emails

Just keeping my usual instructor informed...


If you would like a break from work, I wrote up Saturday's flight at:

Overall Jim seemed happy with my flying, but warned me about overreacting when things went wrong. My first landing was a bounce (flared too late) and I had a balloon later on (marginally too much back stick on the hold-off) but I recovered from the latter (Jim fixed the bounce) and my other landings were OK.

Jim kept pretty quiet for most of the flight, but gave me the following tips:

* don't raise the nose too much too soon on the climb, and trim early [Q: set to takeoff position during touch and go? A: No! Don't stuff with the trim during the takeoff run! You are liable to turn left and ground loop.]

* turn slightly less than 90° on crosswind if you need to allow for a headwind

* turns to take priority over radio calls (yes, I know, you've emphasised ANC)

* power off on base (I was setting it to 1500rpm)

* carby heat to cold on final (I did eventually remember without being prompted)

* correct nose attitude on touch down

* lower into-wind wing on short final in a crosswind, and keep straight with rudder (I presume there are one or more upcoming lessons dedicated to crosswind landings) [A:Yes, probably before the first area solo.]

When I spoke to Jim on the phone he confirmed that if I can continue to recover from errors quickly, and if we can use a grass runway on Saturday, then I'm 'solo material'. Exciting...

Thanks for all your patience and hard work in the training so far.


I'm glad Jim reiterated what you've been taught previously. I hope you've sent him the link to your write-up of the lesson. He'd enjoy reading it.

The grass is a "breeze" to land on compared to the tarmac as there's much more friction to "grab" the wheels when you touch down. If 24 is in use, we can't use the grass (rwy 28) because you can't see the 24 threshold from the 28 threshold (hence Jim staying on RWY 24 with you). But if it's a calm morning next Saturday, rwy 10 is the one to use. I'm assuming you've booked another session with Jim on Saturday, so will see you then.

Have a great week, Iain, and thanks for your e-mail.