Flying Training

Lesson 35: First Area Solo

Saturday 17 September 2006, 1.00pm in Citabria VH-RRW. Instructor: Kerry Scott

Weather: scattered cloud, wind 050° 5kt

Perfect conditions for a first area solo. After last week's check flight I knew what I had to brush up on, and I learnt all my checklists off by heart, read the Visual Flight Guide on radio procedures and practiced landings on Flight Simulator. Remembering Kerry's suggestion I created a 'mud map' of the training area with landmarks, magnetic courses, flight levels, radio calls and checklists. I was pretty sure I was going to make a good job of the flight, but I couldn't escape a feeling of nervousness about landing safely. And funnily enough, that's how it turned out.

I did the pre-flight, noticing the slightly worn right tyre, non-operational stall warning (which always works in flight, so why not on the ground?), the very clean oil (yes, RRW had just had an oil change, and a new tyre on the tailwheel - hence the note in the MR). I also secured the rear harness - something I might have missed if not following the checklist.

Kerry gave me a very thorough briefing, running through all the stages of the flight, from preflight to shutdown. Here's a summary:

  • PREFLIGHT - aircraft, documents, pilot fitness
  • START UP - remember the ROARS checks, particularly S for switches, which in the Citabria means the strobes.
  • TAXI - no other jobs while taxiing. Especially, resist any temptation to tune the radio or check the ATIS.
  • RUN-UP - follow the checklist (don't try to remember it). Don't rush. If unhappy about anything, cancel the flight and return to the starting point. This is a reasonable point to switch on the transponder.
  • HOLDING POINT - if another aircraft in front, leave two a/c lengths. Stop on the bend, at 45° to the runway, for a clear view of traffic on finals. When next to take-off, call the tower.
  • DEPARTURE - Heels back, power up, in the middle of the runway. Maintain 1300 feet till clear of the control boundary, even if the height restriction has been cancelled.
  • SORTIE - See below.
  • ARRIVAL - Kerry suggested Mayfield would be a good inbound point, and 2000 feet would leaves a 200' buffer above the required inbound altitude of 1800'. Expect to be asked to join base and report at 2 miles.
  • CIRCUIT - Kerry pointed out the bend in the Nepean River just before the 2-mile boundary. Radio call is, "RRW, 2 mile base, 1,800".
  • LANDING - Don't rush, and let the aircraft decelerate. Stick back as it sinks.
  • TAXI - Do NOT touch flaps, play with radio, start dreaming, until clear of runway. Concentrate on taxi. Give way if necessary to aircraft taxiing for 06.
  • SHUTDOWN - ROARS checks again. Tie up controls.

The instructions for the flight itself warrant their own list. Apart from taking the aircraft out and bringing it back safely, I had to do the following exercises:

  • Climb to 4000 feet
  • Steep turns (covers the pre-aerobatic HASELL requirement for a 360° turn before stalls)
  • Stall and recover (when you feel the shudder)
  • Practice Forced Landing (PFL):
    • Warm the engine every 1000'
    • Go around at 1200' (ie 700' above the maximum elevation of 500' - stay over the white bits on the chart)
    • Eyes on horizon
    • Positive rate of climb
    • Flaps away
  • Best angle of climb (56 knots and 2 stages of flap)
  • Cruise descent - 500 feet per minute
  • Maintain orientation - know where you are

Kerry's last words were, "Go and have fun." And I did. I concentrated hard on trying to do everything right, but there was still time to enjoy the flight, and the sense of freedom. Of course with freedom comes responsibility, and my major responsibility was to bring the aircraft (and myself!) back safely.

RRW started second time after a pump of the throttle, and I did remember the strobes. ATIS code was Foxtrot. I waited on the grass for a Tomahawk that appeared round the corner of a hangar just as I started to taxi, and I did not get distracted by anything else while taxiing. At the run-up bay I gave a wide berth to the C172 already there, and stopped with nose and wings safely behind the yellow line and tailwheel unlocked. I followed the checklist (reading it out loud as I did so) and didn't rush, even when another aircraft trundled up to my right. I confess I didn't switch on the transponder at this point, because it isn't on the checklist. One thing I did do was quickly check the ATIS again, because the aircraft in front quoted Echo, and I wanted to be sure I'd heard it right. When I did, I found it had actually changed it to Golf during my taxi (not that I noticed any significant change in the conditions).

Run-up complete, I turned back onto the taxiway and stopped the regulation two aircraft lengths behind the C172. When he received his takeoff clearance I made my radio call:

"Camden Tower, Citabria Romeo Romeo Whisky ready runway zero-six for crosswind departure to the training area, with Golf."

"Romeo Romeo Whisky, cancel climb restriction and line up."

"Climb restriction cancelled, lining up, Romeo Romeo Whisky." (Kerry had told me to acknowledge any cancellation of the climb restriction, but not to act on it, as remaining at 1300 feet till past the control boundary is a good, safe habit and highly appropriate for students.)

I turned onto the runway and positioned myself on the centreline. When the aircraft ahead was clear, the tower called:

"Romeo Romeo Whisky, cleared for takeoff."

"Cleared for takeoff, Romeo Romeo Whisky."

And off we go. Heels back, power up over a couple of seconds, stick centralised, keep it straight down the centreline (see, it is possible) and watch the speed. As we pass through 55 knots, think the stick back and we're rising off the runway. No way back now. Keep the nose to the left of a convenient tree, let the speed rise to 70 knots and nudge the trim forward a tad to hold it there. At 800 feet (not long in an empty Citabria) pick an aim point (that mountain whose name I can never remember), look right (lifting the wing slightly for a clear view), centre and left and make a gentle turn to the new heading, keeping a little right rudder in for a co-ordinated turn. A quick glance back to ensure we're square to the runway, then at the altimeter. Almost at 1300' so stick forward till the rate of climb shows zero, pause for the speed to build up to 90 knots (push a little more on the stick so we don't climb past 1300'), then throttle back and trim for level flight. Glance right, find those big green paddocks and make a gentle right turn towards them to keep between the Mayfield and Bringelly inbound tracks. Can't see (or hear) any inbound traffic but better safe than sorry.

Well, here we are, flying. Lovely. Look to the right. Oran Park raceway coming up, so we're approaching the boundary. A good look around for other aircraft (including down!), then check the instruments: Temperature and pressure in the green, mixture fully rich, carby heat to hot (I can hear Kerry saying this) and throttle full forward. Raise the nose, let the speed drop to 70 knots and trim back a little to keep it there. At 2000 feet, push the stick to nose down and take a look ahead (think about whether potential passengers will enjoy floating up in their seats as I do this. Will just explain, safety first). Release stick pressure and the aircraft noses back of its own accord. Hold the stick at 70 knots. Repeat every 500 feet.

Click to enlarge Click to enlarge Soon we're at 4000 feet. Nose forward. Attitude, Power, Speed, Trim as before. Now we have a great view, and some options in case of engine failure. Glance left and there's Mayfield, that distinctive hook in the river. To the right those green paddocks are coming up. Time to switch frequencies. Left hand on stick, right hand on the radio. Use the cursor to highlight the ATIS frequency, and tune it to Sydney Radar, 124.55. Oops, transponder! Switch it on, check it's showing 1200 (I assume it always does at startup) and set it to 'Alt'. This means the radar operators will see my altitude next to my blip on the scope. The radio messages change too - plenty of discussion about events up around 8000 feet, in controlled airspace.

Time to start thinking about the right place for the exercises. Ahead is Penrith Lakes, and before that, the pipeline that marks the end of the training area (at least as practiced by Curtis Aviation). Beyond that it's "Here be dragons," or at least Restricted Area 536A/B. This is the Air Force Orchard Hills base, where they seem to specialise in explosives demolition.

Time for a good look round. First a steep turn to the left. Look right, left and centre, then stick left and back, a little left rudder and throttle up. Aim for a 60° turn without losing height. Look around, but especially up (to the outside of the turn). Back to the instruments; hmmm, we're not losing height but gaining it. Relax the stick pressure slightly for a flatter turn. Look out for Penrith Lakes again - there they are, so roll wings level and throttle back. Pause. Repeat to the right. Finish up with a gentle turn to the south.

Now that we know the airspace around is clear, it's time for a stall recovery. Wings level, temperature and pressure in the green, carby heat to hot, throttle back to idle. Stick back as it slows to hold altitude and keep it straight with rudder. Glance at the airspeed indicator - 50 knots - there's the stall warning horn. Keep the stick moving back and there's the buffet and the nose starts to drop (RRW is well-behaved and doesn't drop a wing. Must try it in WKM one day). Release the back pressure on the stick and throttle smoothly forward. Carby heat to cold. No height loss at all.

OK, time for another one. This time let the nose fall away in the stall before recovering as before. Hmmm... 200' lost. This wouldn't be good when close to the ground, but better than the alternative (falling out of the sky). Wolfgang Langewiesche has it right - you're replacing instinct (haul back on the stick to pull yourself away from the uprushing ground) with drilled reactions (nose down, throttle up, nose on the horizon). So it's a good thing to practice this on every solo flight. (Not while carrying passengers!)

Well, we're still up beyond 4000' (I gave myself plenty of height - but watch that 4500' ceiling!), and practice forced landings are on the agenda. First a cruise descent to lose a little height. RPM at 2200, nose down, trim, and look around. We're heading towards the Mayfield inbound reporting point, and others could be doing the same. No-one in sight. Bit of discussion on the radio about GA aircraft not reporting altitude on their transponders. Feel good that I'm not one of them.

Mayfield. Click to enlarge OK, getting close to Mayfield and 3000 feet. Let's head north again. Check below. Trees to the right, fields to the left, so we'll turn left. Good look around, ease the stick over, bit of rudder, stick centred when we have our turn established. This is nice. Freedom to go where you want. Of course birds don't have to spend a year and $7000 getting to this stage. Now, how do you practice a forced landing? Do you try to take yourself by surprise by yanking the throttle back? Or pick a field and head for it? Decide on the former.

OK, throttle back and the speed starts to fall. Nose up to exchange speed for height. At 60 knots, nose down, trim, look around. Some fields running east-west almost below me; trees on the near side, but with gaps, and the fields are long. Think WOSSSSSET - Wind (from the north-east), Obstructions (trees), Size, Shape, Surface (grass), Slope (the rivers's on this side, so the fields must slope up to the east. So far so good), Sun (behind us), Elevation (up to 500', so go around at 1200'), Terrain (higher ground below forces a steep approach. Not ideal). Brief the imaginary passengers - "We've had an engine failure, but there's no need to worry, we'll just glide down and land in that paddock there." Decide to glide in a big circle to lose height and come back towards the east, which I do. All too soon we're at 1200' and it's time to pull up. It feels strange to be pulling out so soon, especially after touching the ground during the PFL lesson, but of course it's safety first for the new solo pilot.

Warragamba Dam. Click to enlarge Practice Forced Landing. Click to enlarge Still, it feels unconvincing, so decide to head north, find a clear paddock and try again. On the way, pass by Warragamba Dam. Still keeping a lookout for other aircraft, and there, low down over the dam, is a red and silver Tiger Moth. A nice sight, though very low. (No, it's not in the picture on the left.) I give it a wide berth and bear right towards the private strip by the pipeline. On the way there's a large, welcoming paddock so I do another PFL.

Click to enlarge This one feels a little more real (though looking back I realise I missed the CFMOST checks and the radio call). As I'm pulling out I notice another aircraft, low over the private strip, probably doing the same thing as me. My work here is over, so I make a climbing turn to the south, then fish my briefing notes out of my pocket and run through the list of exercises. Aha! Best angle of climb. This is as good a spot as any, so once more it's temperature & pressure in the green, mixture full rich, carby heat to cold, pull the flap lever till it clicks once, then twice, apply full power and point the nose at the sky. It's a while since I've done this and it feels very steep, but I hold 56 knots, and note that the rate of climb is about 1100 feet per minute.

Levelling out at 3000 feet, I recheck the list. So much for the drills. Now to get back on the ground. I set course for Mayfield again, in a steady descent to 2000 feet. I switch the radio back to Camden Tower (120.1 MHz), and tune the other frequency to the ATIS (125.1). Still Golf. Now I retrieve the other piece of paper, the 'mud-map' suggested by Kerry, and check the magnetic bearing from Mayfield to Camden, for runway 06. I turn onto this heading (150°M), which takes me straight towards Camden township, and call the Tower: "Camden Tower, Romeo Romeo Whisky, Citabria, Mayfield, two thousand feet, inbound with Golf."

The tower comes back: "Romeo Romeo Whisky, join base, zero-six, maintain one thousand eight hundred feet, report at two miles".

"Join base, zero-six, maintain one thousand eight hundred, Romeo Romeo Whisky."

Now look out for the loop in the river this side of the 2NM boundary. It's clearly marked on the VTC and Visual Pilot's Guide. Once over it, call the tower again: "Romeo Romeo Whisky, two miles."

"Romeo Romeo Whisky, number one."

Brilliant, no need to sight other traffic. "Number one, Romeo Romeo Whisky."

Now I just need to make a long base leg, then it's a normal circuit. I identify the triangular group of retirement units and head towards them. Time for the BUMFISH checks - Brakes (press and release), Undercarriage (peer over each side - yes, the wheel spats are still there), Mixture (full rich), Fuel (main tap on; fuel in each tank), Instruments (temperature and pressure in the green), Switches (glance up to the left - both magnetos are on), Hatches (cosed) and harness (tight). Here are the units. Carby heat to hot, throttle back, trim for 70 knots and descend to 800'. Descent rate is a little fast, so throttle up a tad. Here's the turn. Round we go.

Now the runway's ahead. I register an aircraft at the hold point. Aimpoint, Line, Performance. Aimpoint is the taxiway. Little movements on the rudder to keep the runway centreline vertical. Speed reducing to 60 knots (but was I a little fast? It's nearly two weeks ago now.)

I'm not going to go into much detail on the landing and touchdown as it's still rather painful. Let's just say I've probably attempted worse touch downs, but only when there's been an instructor there to save the situation. This time there was just me, heading for a runway light. How did that happen! Left rudder, now I'm shooting to the left, just like those crazy takeoffs back when my hours were in single figures. Somehow I bring it back under control, take a deep breath, and call the tower. "Romeo Romeo Whisky, apologies for that dreadful landing." (A very non-standard radio call.)

"No worries. Do you need assistance?"

"No, I'm fine, thanks." Well, I'm alive.

Taking great care over the taxiing I return, park and shutdown. Kerry, who's been watching the whole thing, comes straight across and tells me to start up again. She's correctly identified that I'm going to be thinking hugely negative thoughts the whole way home, so she suggests a few circuits. Unfortunately it doesn't really work because I'm just too rattled. All my landings are scrappy, and after one huge balloon I go around. My tail's well between my legs on the drive home, but I debrief at the Beech's and feel a little better after a beer. Bart explains to Michelle that it's the tailwheel effect, but I know there's more to it than that.

I couldn't stop thinking about it, and wondered whether it made a difference having no-one in the back seat. Here's Kerry's response:


It has NOTHING to do with the fact that there was / was not, a rear seat passenger.

It has NOTHING to do with the speed at which the aircraft will stop flying (stall).

The flare and touch-down has EVERYTHING to do with your eyes outside the aircraft, and bringing the stick back as the aircraft sinks so that the stick is FULLY BACK at the time that you touch down (who cares what speed this is!), and STAYS THERE. If you don't have the stick right back at the point of touchdown, you have two chances (buckley's and none) of having any directional control - because the wheel is not "pinned down" by having the stick fully rearward .... same as taxiing.

The landing roll has EVERYTHING to do with the amount of rudder, and the amount of change of rudder input if the aircraft commences an uncommanded turn. Remember that we taxi at "fast walk pace", and even at that speed, it takes effort to keep the aircraft in a smooth turn around bends in the taxiway. This is because there is barely any airflow over the rudder, and thus only the wheel and springs that, when manipulated, will change your aircraft direction. It's the same as when you have touched-down after landing.... except the aircraft is still travelling VERY FAST ... like about 60-70km/h, along the ground, so ANY deviation from "straight" needs to be corrected ASAP, but NOT over-corrected.... corrections need to be "speed sensitive".

Therefore small rudder movements are required, in a timely manner to correct ANY deviation from straight.

Remember Iain, that pressing and "holding" the right rudder in (say about about 2 inches) to straighten up does not mean that when you're straight, you suddenly release the rudder.... nor apply "left rudder" (a disastrous move). You gradually start releasing the rudder as the aircraft becomes straight in a smooth movement, so that once the aircraft is straight again, the rudders are also neutral.

I hope this makes sense to you, Iain.

Ground loops are frightening as well as being dangerous, and can cause major injury. It will be good to refine this skill with you on our next session. But remember, that a good landing commences with an accurate circuit, and a good (mental) attitude. This is why often I've asked you to roll your shoulders and to take a deep breath on base, to ensure that you are relaxed enough to concentrate... right up to the shutdown.


and a follow-up when I'd explained that I wasn't tired, or affected by drugs or alcohol, but may have been a teensy bit stressed at work:

Cheers Iain.

RE: Stressful at work: It's amazing how much "subconcious thought" occurs and how things can affect us even if we don't know.

You will also be surprised how fatigue can exist even when we're unaware. A "BIG" flight for you... lots of things to consciously remember at this stage of your training (from departure, sortie - what to practice... pre manoeuvre checks etc, to arrival) and how little things on top of all that (such as perhaps a busy radio frequency) can cause us to lose full focus on flying the aircraft.

On your navigation flights this will be even more apparent, as you will have spent much 'mental energy' finding where you need to go, and at the end of all that, you still have to do one of the hardest things.... fly a circuit in a strange place and land the aircraft safely.

BTW it was nice to hear that your boys' teacher flies at Curtis and has a great time learning there.

See you on the 1st :-)


Beagle Airedale. Click to enlarge So the key point is STICK FULL BACK. This sticks the tailwheel to the ground and gives you the steering authority you need to make little corrections, and avoid them becoming big ones.

On the plus side, Kerry had been listening to all my radio calls, and said they were fine. Looking forwards, I've got a flight lined up with a friend in a Beagle Airedale (like a British 172!) on Saturday [didn't happen - too windy], and then on Sunday I'll see if I can get back to the standard of landings I demonstrated on my solo circuits.