Pilots retain the bubbling joys of their First Solo for life, with many adamant the experience of reaching this first major milestone in learning to fly is hard to top, both in and out of the realms of aviation.
Every pilot I’ve spoken to, from student pilots still working towards their PPL right through to old hands with countless flying hours under their belt and even instructors themselves, romanticises about the rapturous gush of emotions that greet the budding new pilot on completion of their First solo.
Magnificient, terrifying, brilliant, scary, fantastic, awfully tentative, awesome, terrific - just some of the words used to describe the experience. If I had an extra flying hour under my belt for every time I’ve been told of the joyous satisfaction of going solo my logbook would look a whole lot more respectable then it currently does.
And so it is that I commence my circuit training, the next stage of the learning to fly journey, with my head and heart firmly set on getting blown away by the rush of First Solo.
With the basics down pat, my instructor Dominic O’Kelly of Bankstown-based Aerospace Aviation introduces me to circuits, where, all things according to plan, I pull it all together into cohesive piloting.
After a meaty, almost hour-long stint in the briefing room soaking up circuit theory with the help of a white board chockers with diagrams, I eagerly march out to the Aerospace parking lot, pre-flight and kick my trusty steed Pinky the PA-28 Cherokee Archer in the guts, taxi out and attentively observe as Dom demonstrates the first circuit. Initially the circuit doesn’t seem as difficult as I’d envisaged – touch wood. My spine tingles and I crack a grin as I realise the ante is about to be upped and I’m moving to the next level of learning to flying.
Taking over the controls from my instructor after the initial demo, I retract the flaps, return the throttle back to full and start to rotate as Pinky hits 65kts with my foot heavy on the right rudder to maintain the centre line. Glueing my eyes on a reference point off the nose and slightly to the left, I try to fly a straight upwind leg to 500ft.
Dom had informed me beforehand that until I get comfortable in the circuit it’ll feel like it all goes by in the blink of an eye, and before I know it we’re at 800ft at the back end of the crosswind leg and rolling onto downwind. The turn onto downwind introduces the first coordination challenge as we enter in a climbing turn before dropping the nose at 1000ft during the turn and completing it as a level turn through 90°.
Snapping my neck two shades away from whiplash, I focus on keeping Pinky on the correct line as I continuously go through the height, heading, spacing, traffic performance checks. With my eyes relentlessly darting back and forth I concentrate hard on maintaining Pinky at 1000ft, pointing her nose at a cluster of inner Sydney skyscrapers far off on the horizon, keeping her left wing intersecting the runway centreline at a third of the way from the wing tip, and scanning for traffic.
Approaching the busiest part of the circuit, the base leg, with the runway nearly in the 45° position to our rear left, I ease the power back to 1500rpm, forget to turn on the carby heat, and try to hold Pinky in a level turn onto base while pulling two stages of flap so we can promptly ease back to 75kts.
We coast down base on a half sky/half ground attitude until reaching 600ft. With the runway nearly off the end of the left wing, I roll Pinky left using the centreline as a reference but manage to overshoot it anyway. With Dom helping to get Pinky back on the centreline, I use the second white line beyond the threshold as my aiming point and concentrate on keeping on the correct profile as we gradually lose altitude.
70kts and 200-odd feet as we float over Bankstown’s perimeter fencing, easing back to 66kts as the threshold starts to pass under us. As the airspeed slows it becomes increasingly difficult to keep the wings level and maintain centerline as the smallest change in wind feels like it’s blowing Pinky miles off line. The controls become sloppy and I have to make much more pronounced inputs to get the desired result, which inevitably feels a bit dicey as we get closer and closer to the ground.
With my instructor shadowing on the controls so we don’t noseplant, I make what I’m told is a, “well above average at this stage” landing. And that’s that – my first tussle with circuits and I feel pretty confident, all things considered. We repeat three further laps before making a full stop and walking away on a high.
This first run through feels like an exercise of intensive labour, by the end of which I’ve almost given myself an early bout of arthritis from gripping the control column too hard and all but recasting it in the shape of my clenched fist. I could’ve sworn the whole lesson only lasted 20 minutes, even though it was actually closer to 40. I come away with some decent kudos from my instructor and high hopes, even if I was helped along by the man in the right hand seat for most of it.
Dare I say it…
Not to sound overly cocky or like I’m prematurely blowing my own horn, but after a few tentative runs through the circuit I find myself thinking, ‘I’m sure I can handle First Solo any day now’. Overzealous? Yes. Lacking in foresight? Yes. But nonetheless, in some sense a little substantiated.
Let me clarify that. What I mean is, even though it’s early days I firmly believe that the fundamentals of actually flying the circuit aren’t that difficult to grasp. I feel confident that without my instructor sitting next to me I could get Pinky airborne, conduct each of the legs – albeit none too gracefully, nor accurately – and put her back on the runway without crashing headlong into anyone or anything and bursting into flames.
Granted, airmanship and proceedures would go clean out the window entirely. I’d likely forget every radio call and have ATC chomping at the bit to put a black tick or six next to my name upon landing and banish me from Bankstown for the term of my natural life. So it’s probably for the best that for the time being I resist from perking up and voicing my fancy notions of going solo to my instructor – he’d likely laugh me out of Bankstown, not to mention the rest of town!
A matter of refinement
As an old golf instructor once told me, practise makes permanent. He also used the more commonly voiced proverb, ‘practice makes perfect’, but stressed that is only true if what you’re practising is perfect. So with an emphasis on nailing the right technique throughout the entirety of the circuit rather than just getting from take-off to landing in one haphazard piece, my focus now turns to conducting by-the-book circuits. That means no more oblique legs, no more overbanked turns, no more incorrect altitude fluctuations, and no more ballooning on late final. It becomes a matter of doing the same thing over and over and over and over again until it feels second nature, which takes a degree of perserverance, patience and focus.
Some facets of the circuit seem to come easy, like the, “three PPL standard landings” my instructor congratulates me on in my very first lesson. Others meanwhile prove more of a slog.
With everything seemingly happening at once, the excitement gets the better of me and before I even notice it in one particular series of circuits my intended 15° climbing turns onto crosswind balloon out to 30° turns, I level out onto downwind 100 feet above where I’m meant to, and I overextend some legs and unwittingly almost pass into controlled airspace.
I also find challenges early on in trying to fly nice, neat, rectangular circuits – a process that really drives home the importance of establishing and maintaining clear reference points. As my focus shifts to the other tasks at hand and my eyes leave the horizon I inadvertently start drifting from my reference feature, in turn pushing Pinky either closer or further away from the runway than desired. Likewise, I soon become aware of the difficulties in making full 90° turns without keeping a good eye on the reference point as I roll through the turn.
Although on downwind the spacing rule of thumb of keeping the runway intersecting the wing a third of the way from its tip sure comes in handy and helps counter my tendency to fly slightly towards the runway instead of parallel to it.
Putting Pinky down
I don’t get too far into circuits before a decent crosswind rears its ugly head. Trying my level best flying down final to keep on the centreline, I swear on more than one occasion that I’m about to miss the runway altogether and put Pinky down on the grass, before Dom takes the reins and demonstrates how to handle a crosswind landing.
Combining this experience with some instances where the wind isn’t battering us around and I still stray on late final, I soon appreciate how important maintaining the runway centreline is in order to pull off a decent landing. Getting off the centreline on late final only complicates the process as it adds to the workload as I juggle drifting back onto the centreline with maintaining my aiming point and rounding out as per usual.
As I manoeuvre Pinky through landing after landing I start developing a sneaking suspicion that the few impressive landings I pulled off on day one may have, dare I say it, been flukes. There’s definitely more to landing cleanly than first meets the eye, and doing it correctly requires some coordination.
As we fly down final Dom gets me to repeat over and over like a possessed chant the mantra: aiming point, centreline, and airspeed – the three things to watch as the runway gets closer. He uses the analogy of spearing a spear into the ground to describe the correct profile to maintain all the way down final to avoid overshooting or undershooting. This doesn’t pose many problems, but maintaining the correct airspeed over those last few hundred feet is the bit that initially gets me.
Holding steady at 70kts down final on an even profile with the plane trimmed sets us up in the correct configuration without having to fiddle with power changes too much. But reaching the point where we need to start slowing down to get back to 66kts over the threshold is where it gets busy as I pull back on the power and simultaneously increase back pressure to maintain a straight approach path.
As the runway gets closer and closer and closer I gradually reduce the power all the way back to idle as the threshold disappears under us, while also continually easing back on the control column to get the nose up and land on the rear wheels. Dom tells me that when I nail this I should get the stall warning alarm just before the wheels touch the ground.
I find that getting the right combination of back pressure and power to keep on profile and maintain the desired airspeed to achieve a high-nose attitude and low airspeed as we kiss the runway is a matter of conditioning my responses to be automatic. If airspeed is too low, the left hand needs to almost instinctively – but smoothly – pull back on the controls to raise the nose, while the right hand needs to work in tandem and increase power slightly to pre-empt the subsequent loss of airspeed.
It’s immediately apparent that smoothness on the controls is pivotal here. When I make either, or both, of these inputs either too abruptly or too gently things quickly go awry and poor Pinky either starts ballooning, her nose drops too heavily onto the runway, or instead of landing on the second white line we end up touching down further up the runway.
Thankfully, for Pinky and for my ego, I manage not to do anything too drastic.
With my instructor driving home the notion that left hand controls profile while right hand controls airspeed, I eventually get closer to consistently achieving the three criteria for a good landing – high-nose attitude, low airspeed and the correct touchdown point.
While I seem intent, for the time being at least, on alternating between impressive and not so impressive landings, Dom provides some solace by explaining that low-wing aircraft such as Pinky the Piper are far more harder to land than their high-wing counterparts.
While I’ve come to adore Pinky as we’ve bonded along the way, knowing this earlier may well have enticed me to cram my sizeable frame into a Cessna instead. But I figure it’ll give me a leg up down the track on my fellow student pilots who don’t have the luxury of being too tall to start learning in a C152, so I don’t heap any of the blame for my at times dodgy landings on my beloved Pinky.
As fun as the landing is, the most exhilirating moment in the circuit comes directly after the landing with the touch and go. I pull off a neat and tidy landing and, grinning from ear to ear, reach down and retract the flaps, return the throttle from the idle position right back to full power and race off again down the runway for another crack at it. Going from the mininum power setting of landing all the way back to maximum power and up in the air again in one fluid motion makes for an incredible rush, even if Pinky isn’t exactly the speediest bird in the world. And the rapid transition from sloppy to sensitive controls really keeps you on your toes. I can only imagine what it would feel like to do a touch and go in a souped up aircraft – I’ll save that one for when I’m just slightly more advanced.
Irony in spades
The major stumbling block I’m encountering in the circuit is base leg, where things are tending to get a little pear-shaped. Dom explains that base is by far the hardest leg to fly correctly, and he’s right as rain. For reasons I can’t entirely fathom I’m struggling to get down to the necessary 500ft at the completion of the turn onto final.
On one embarrassing trip down base I even manage to completely forget to pull any stages of flap, and things turn messy as I roll out on final some 300-odd feet higher than I should be. Taking this in his stride, Dom takes the opportunity to demonstrate a go around – which I’d just like to say was part of the teaching plan all along and retain a modicum of my dignity. If only.
Given my shoddy performance on base, Dom offers to make things easier next lesson by handling the base leg himself to allow me to focus on getting the rest of the circuit down pat.
By now I’m well aware of the patience required to deal with the unexpected delays and cancellations that go hand in hand with ‘aviaiton time’. But even so, I almost have to slap myself out of a stupor the night before one particular lesson when I realise it’s been three weeks to the day between lessons. This is the longest stint on the bench I’ve had to endure since first kickstarting my training and I shudder at the prospect of putting in a dismal performance. My fears multiply as I recall that my previous lesson was a right shocker. That night I sleep uneasy as images of my instructor admonishing my rusty technique and running in fear for his life plague me.
But irony is a funny thing, to be sure. I drive back out to Bankstown hoping against all hope that I can pull of at least one decent circuit, without having any way of knowing just how well things are in fact about to unfold.
As I nervously wait in the run-up bay, the windsock couldn’t be more stationary if it was weighed down with a wheelbarrow full of besser blocks, it’s not so much CAVOK as it is CAV-perfection, and there’s not one other aircraft in the circuit. So I figure at least I’ll be able to get in a few more runs through this time than in previous lessons, upping my odds of pulling off a ripper and redeeming myself.
On the runway and taking over from Dom who, figuring I’d appreciate some refreshing, demonstrates the first circuit, I retract the flaps, extend to full power, rotate at 65kts and cross my fingers. Despite the three weeks off, flying the circuit immediately feels more relaxed and natural. Whereas previously on downwind I’d sometimes inadvertently slip up to 1100ft, now I’m keeping Pinky steady at the correct altitude of 1000ft. The angle of bank of my turns is also on the money, as is my spacing and heading. I start thinking, ‘I’ve worked myself up over nothing’, but the true test is yet to come.
Feeling confident on downwind, I tell Dom I’ll have another crack at base leg. In spite of my previous substandard attempts, I now execute base leg after base leg comfortably, rolling out onto final at the desired 500ft. The main reason for my reversal of fortune is a much greater awareness of altitude and airspeed. While maintaining a level turn into base to lower airspeed, I ensure that two stages of flap are extended early by the completion of the turn and focus on making the base leg a gradual descent – like a ‘slippery dip’, as Dom calls it. This helps in configuring Pinky and from there it merely becomes a matter of trimming, adjusting the attitude and settling the airspeed.
Against the odds I pull off by far my best lesson to date, which boosts my confidence ten-fold and serves as an immediate and joyful reminder of just how much fun flying is.
It’s like somehow, by some bizarre twist of fate, I had become a much more competent flyer by, ironically, not flying. Perhaps Pinky and I just needed some time apart to work through our differences.
A spanner in the works
Just when I start feeling like I’m getting my head around it all, a spanner is thrown in the works, making for a few head-scratching moments. I have been using Bankstown’s runway 29L exclusively for circuits so far, meaning all turns are left-hand turns and there’s some clearly defined reference points to help me keep my bearings. But as we listen to the ATIS before one particular lesson the ATC informs us that today we’ll be using runway 11R instead.
This alternative direction for circuits initially feels foreign. Anyone who’s used Bankstown’s runway 29L would appreciate just how conveniently placed the Bankstown Trotting Recreational Club track is for circuits, providing the perfect reference for determining when to turn onto both base and final. It sure makes it a whole lot easier than using Georges River Golf Course to decide when to commence the roll when using runway 11R.
But I take it as a blessing in disguise as it forces me to recognise when I’m at the 30° position to the runway to drop the rpm back to 1500 and flick the carby heat on, and then at the 45° position when I need to start the turn onto base.
I had had a niggling concern in the back of my mind about how I would cope down the track when using airports other than Bankstown and wouldn’t have any immediately recognisable reference points on the ground to help determine just when to turn from one leg of the circuit to the next. Once again Dom chimes in with some pertinent pearls of wisdom. With assurance in his voice he tells me that following success in circuits at an aerodrome with very visible ground features (like Bankstown), one almost mentally transposes those solid features when using airports that are devoid of such features. A good thing to keep in mind for future reference, no doubt.
Less than half a circuit into the lesson I realise that making right hand turns makes it all the more harder to gauge positioning and spacing as I’m constantly leaning to the right of the cockpit – almost cracking skulls with Dom in the process – to see the threshold. Having the runway on your left makes it all a far sight easier.
Getting my head around flying circuits on runway 11R leads to some sobering moments, but Dom assures me I’m nonetheless making satisfactory progress and don’t have any major areas of concern. I take his word for it that it’s all steady as she goes so far.
Next lesson we’re back circulating on runway 29L, but a few circuits into it the alternate runway scenario comes into play again as ATC advises of a runway change. Dom tells me this is a rare occurrence and I should consider myself lucky to get to experience a runway change so early on. We’re climbing on crosswind as we get the call and ATC allows us to choose our preferred course of action. So I hand the controls over to Dom and observe the manoeuvre as he makes two right-hand turns and we rejoin the circuit for runway 11R on base leg and hastily throw in the BUMPFISH checks and radio call and make the turn onto an extended final.
Back in the de-briefing room after about six lessons into circuits, Dom puts his foot down and levels with me.
“You’re going to have to learn your radio calls, briefs, and checks ASAP in order to go solo,” he warns.
He hastily rattles off the various things I need to memorise post-haste – five radio calls, BUMPFISH pre-landing checks, take-off performance checks, the take-off safety brief and the departure brief for circuits.
It’s not like I had been procrastinating memorising all of these – well, maybe just a little – but more so I had been caught up focusing on learning the practical side of circuits, figuring the rest would fall into place in due course.
Back in my uni heyday when I was studying Japanese I used to religiously carve up fresh sheets of A4 and make flash cards by the hundreds to drill new vocabulary into my head. I’d take them everywhere – work, pub, bed, even to the gents in lieu of a magazine. As elementary as it may sound, it works like a charm no matter what you’re trying so desperately to memorise.
So I jot down the radio calls and various checks I need on flash cards and make short work of it. Admittedly, there is nothing overly mind-boggling I have to memorise, but now I’m up to speed and ready to roll come next lesson.
Having barely made any radio calls or checks, I relish the prospect of rattling them all off back to back like an ever-attentive student hoping to impress their teacher. As we progress through the lesson they roll off my tongue one by one at the right time and place, which makes me wonder why I hadn’t started incorporating them earlier. I manage to introduce the radio calls and BUMPFISH checks without compromising my circuit performance – or so I think until Dom informs me I’m letting downwind get a bit sloppy.
I save memorising the take-off safety brief for last, but as I read through it one quiet evening at home I give it a whole lot more priority as I overhear on the late night news that a student has just crashed at Bankstown.
I find out from Dom the next morning that the cause of the crash was an engine failure on upwind, resulting in an attempted return to the field from a lower than acceptable altitude. Accordingly, I quickly whip up a take-off safety brief flash card and hook in.
Close, but no cigar…just yet
With my circuits now down pat, we move on to the final few lessons before First Solo – Circuit Abnormalities, Emergency Situations, Glide Approach, and Flapless Approach.
Words like ‘abnormalities’ and ‘emergency situations’ may evoke scary images of planes bursting into flames and plummeting to the ground, but these lessons are drama-free as my instructor demonstrates, amongst other things, how to recover from a bounce or ballooning during landing as well as engine and brake failure.
Both glide and flapless approaches prove less difficult than I’d anticipated, with the main focus on monitoring airspeed, height and positioning in relation to the runway and reacting accordingly.
In both cases the landing requires a bit more focus as we come down final on a steeper flightpath for the glide and a shallow flightpath for flapless. To keep me on my toes during the glide approach lesson, without warning during upwind and crosswind my instructor yanks the power back to idle, yelps “simulated engine failure” and gets me to explain the appropriate course of action. Fun stuff!
With a little over 14 flying hours up my sleeve, I’m now so close to reaching First Solo I can almost feel the thrill of it.