Lessons #7 and #8: Slow Flight and Circuits

Lesson #7 nearly didn’t happen because of the weather: visibility was pretty poor, but I went to the airfield anyway as there was a lot of briefing to be done and the forecast was for the weather to clear anyway. The following lesson was due to be another student on solo circuits and, as it was also quite windy, that likely wouldn’t happen so I’d be able to have that spot. And that’s exactly what happened.

Briefing on stalling and circuits was about an hour, and a lot to remember. Stalling doesn’t seem too bad, but circuits looks like it’ll take a while to get the positioning and set up working at the right points. So after the briefing and a quick lunch, it was time to check the plane out and then up we went.

Take-offs seem almost routine now (famous last words, I’m sure), and we were on runway 04 left again as the wind was from the north-east. Once we’d climbed and left the circuit we headed out to the edge of the reservoir to start our slow flight experiments. It certainly was a bit murky up there and I think borderline as to whether it was worth going up, given how the horizon just disappeared into the white mist. But it was just about okay and you could sense where the horizon would be if it were clearer, and visibility was about 8-10km anyway. Even though it was a bit gusty on the ground it was relatively still up in the air.

Slow flight was interesting, and keeping the plane at 55 knots without the stall warning going off or drifing over wasn’t that easy. But it was really extreme feeling the difference in the power settings at such a low speed and I can see how this ties into all-round aircraft handling, especially when on the approach. Basically, being either side of the 60 knot drag curve affects the performance of the plane dramatically and if there’s one thing I take away it’s this: don’t go below 60 knots if you can help it, and if you need to climb, turn, or whatever then you should really pitch forward for 60 and then do what you need to do. Once over 60 knots the plane starts behaving more normally again.

Again, I got to fly the approach, all except for the last 50 feet where it all goes to pieces. Lining up was better this time but I just put a bit too much power on to correct and that was it: we were pointing at the wrong angle at the wrong speed. Oh well – learning from mistakes and all that. The one good thing was that it showed just how responsive the plane is even at that speed and close to the ground, which means there’s nothing to fear from a go-around.

Lesson #8 was going to be either stalling or circuits, depending on either wind or cloud. As it happened there was a fair amount of wind, but it was steady and not gusty and, more importantly, straight down runway 22, and the lowest cloud level was about 1,200 feet or so – almost exactly circuit height (although when we got up there it seemed a bit higher than that). So circuits it was.

After all the external and internal checks we taxied close to the hold point for the into-the-wind power check, only to find the left magneto running extremely bumpy and dropping about 300 RPM. James took over and gave it a good warm through on a leaner engine setting. At least I know what a failed check sounds like: bumpy. But after a few minutes it seemed to clear itself and we were good to go after all. Until we (again) checked temperatures and pressures and saw that the temperature was still at the bottom of the gauge. It was a warm day, and after a few minutes of revving to clear the magneto it really should have been warmer. It was looking like this would be a red light on flying, until James tapped the glass and the needle sprang into the middle. “I thought that just happened on films?” I said, not really joking.

Anyway, we set off, and because of the combination of win and clouds the skies were pretty much clear and we didn’t have to wait for any landings or take-offs. Runway 22 is the more usual runway, as it points almost dead south, but this was the first lesson for a while that I’d taken off down it. Having read the circuit notes I was trying to work out where to turn etc etc. James flew the first circuit for a touch and go and handed the controls over as we were climbing away from the second.

The circuit actually didn’t go too bad. The climbing turn to crosswind at 900 feet; the turn onto downwind at 1,200 feet (and head for the forest staying parallel to the runway); then the turn to base leg just after the pylons. I didn’t really attempt the BUMFLITCH checks on the downlind leg for the first attempt as there was plenty going on, but did on the others – getting about 3/4 of the way through on the first try and going through them all relatively easily by the end. As well as the downwind radio check, and the need to actually fly the plane, given the strong tailwind there certainly wasn’t a lot of time to hang around with them.

And for those who don’t know, and for me that needs revision, BUMFLITCH means:

  • Brakes: check they have some pressure in them
  • Undercarriage: fixed in the Cessna 152
  • Mixture: make sure it’s set to rich
  • Fuel: make sure there’s enough for a go-around
  • Landing light: switch it on if it isn’t already
  • Temperatures and pressures: the usual engine check
  • Carb heat: give the engine a bit of a heat just in case there’s any icing
  • Hatches and harnesses: seat belts on, check doors are closed

The first turn onto final was quite late, and I nearly let the speed drop far too much after the second stage of flap. With the meaty headwind we had quite a slow approach and a bit more power than usual to keep us over the pylons and above the M25. It still seems a bit mental crossing that at under 400 feet. I never have reason to be on that stretch of the road so I’ll never have noticed the planes before.

The approaches were, in rough order:

  • slightly too high, but fixable
  • definitely too low, and my first go-around in anger
  • definitely too high, and another go-around
  • mostly okay until the last 30 feet, but the landing happened (with help) and then it was flaps up and off again
  • even more mostly okay, but again the flaring went a bit awry

I actually don’t think flaring is going to be a big problem, but the gusts of wind weren’t helping me today. I felt we were being pushed into the wrong direction by the wind once we were almost on the ground and at least twice as I levelled the wings I released some of the pressure on the flare: a big no-no. Still, some of the approaches were okay, and the circuits themselves seemed as good as I’d have expected of myself for first attempts (and I even managed to fit the checks in, and heading corrections on the downwind leg).

The good news on the landing part and the final section of the approach is in that in each case I know exactly what I did wrong and I feel like practice will sort these things out. Apparently I was also very unflustered by the go-around, something that I put entirely down to the over-application of power when trying to land on the last lesson. I just have to make sure to learn from those mistakes and try to stop myself repeating them!

Having read other PPL blogs and seeing how much time circuits take up then maybe I will be fed up with them at some point, but for now I just want to keep on doing them until I get it right. Flying is a very addictive form of perfectionism, or so I’m starting to feel.

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