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Some Tips For Successful Circuit Flying

Before we go too far, understand that I’m not in the position to tell anyone how to fly. I’m way too new at it and there are way better instructors out there.

What I’m doing with these tips is sharing some stuff that made sense to me, as a new pilot, while learning from a good instructor. For me learning is hearing something repeatedly until I’m ready to absorb it. The tips themselves are obvious, but it took me a while to learn them because I was usually overwhelmed by all the new information swirling around in my head flying the aircraft. Each of the tips makes it easier to process the information.

It goes without saying that all of these tips were told to me from the beginning, but I wasn’t ready for them until I was actually flying circuits and running into simple problems, like coming in too high, or too low, or not getting my calls done in time. Every circuit under my belt gave me a chance to solve the last problem and then move to the next problem.

So, the idea behind these tips is to give anyone who can make use of them a jump start. Instead of taking as many circuits as I needed to have each little “aha” moment, maybe you can get to them more quickly by learning off my experience. These tips are, therefore, not lessons in flying the circuit, but tips for learning to fly the circuit better and faster so that you can solo and get on to the next level of your training.

One place every student ends up is in the circuit. The circuit is an agreed upon pattern that pilots use in order to maintain traffic separation and make the lives of air traffic controllers easier. Everybody flies the circuit at a particular airport the same way, so everybody knows where everyone should be.

There are rules and protocols that are pretty standardized. Most of the time the circuit is a left hand one, meaning the pilots turn left from one leg to the other, but occasionally they are right hand circuits.

The circuit consists of five parts: the take off leg, the crosswind leg, the downwind leg, the base leg and the final leg. Sometimes the last two legs are referred to as the approach legs.

The take off leg starts on the runway and continues until the turn out, which is generally at 500 feet AGL. A left turn brings you to the crosswind leg. With some planes, like a 170, you climb to 1000 feet AGL through the crosswind. With others, like a 150, that doesn`t climb as well, you might start the turn at 800 feet AGL. Either way, circuit height is generally 1000 feet AGL, and you`d like to get to circuit height by the time you`re ready to turn into the downwind. If you turn at 800 feet AGL you obviously have to execute a climbing turn.

The downwind gets its name because we land into the wind. Another way of saying into the wind is upwind. The opposite of upwind (which is the way you`re flying) is downwind, hence the name.

The downwind is the leg during which you do your pre-landing checks and make the call to the tower for clearance. As soon as you`ve completed the turn from crosswind to downwind check your spacing from the runway, make sure you`re flying parallel to it, establish yourself in straight and level flight, and then immediately get on the checks. The sooner you do this the more time you`ll have to make your call for landing clearance and look for traffic. That`s the first tip. Get into straight and level right away, check your position and do your checks. Be quick, but be consistent.

Once you`ve gotten clearance from the tower you can start getting ready for your turn to base. The time to turn is when the end of the runway is at a 45 degree angle from a point in the middle of the rear wing root and the stabilizer.

You have to slow down to go down, and that means you need to get to your approach speed and attitude as soon as possible. To do this you should try to do everything the same way every time. You have some latitude in the order, but usually you`ll pull the power back first. Pick a target RPM and pin the needle right on it. If you make it into the white arc that allows application of flaps you can either apply flaps in stages or set them to 20 degrees right off the bat. The key is to be consistent each time.

If you aren`t in the white arc you can start the turn. This will bleed off energy and get you into the white arc. At this point you can apply flaps. Again, apply them in stages, or apply them all at once, but be consistent. That`s tip two – consistency.

If you haven`t turned yet, do so now(assuming you`ve made your calls, received clearance and are ok with traffic).

When you reduce power the nose will drop and you`ll have to pull back on the yoke to maintain the desired attitude. When you add flaps the nose will go up, and you`ll have to adjust again. You can trim the plane each time. Trimming makes it easier to fly and allows you to concentrate on other things, like rate of descent. You want to be descending at 400 to 500 feet per minute. Tip three is to confirm your target RPM, your approach speed, and your rate of descent. Get them established as soon as possible during the base leg.

A good approach makes for good landings. Proper approach speed, power setting and rate of descent should put you on a good approach, and if you do everything consistently you`ll have consistently better chances of establishing a good approach. At this point on the base leg you need to look at the runway to decide when to turn to final. Consistency kicks in here once again: I like to start the turn when the runway has passed the pitot tube and is almost at the strut. You may pick a different time, but be consistent. If the end of your turn lines you up with the runway you`re doing it right.

All that`s left is to stay on the glide path all the way down and land. If you`ve done everything correctly and consistently you should have no problem.

The only fly in the ointment is that wind, temperature and loading conditions vary every time we fly. Being consistent with your inputs from flight to flight won`t get you to the same point on the runway every time because your inputs are only half the equation. You have to compensate for ambient conditions. And here is tip number four: if you`ve been consistent with all your inputs you`ve established a consistent benchmark. You can now adjust intelligently for wind, temperature or loading in order to stay on the optimal glide path. In fact, you will almost always have to adjust. The tip is that you should be aware that you`re adjusting from a benchmark that you are adjusting from a benchmark that you established on purpose, not just guessing what you should do based on how things look.

The last tip is pretty simple, but it took me a while to realize it and put it into practice. We fly circuits to practice, and we do it repetitively. It stands to reason that if you`ve done everything consistently and you`re high on your first approach you can fix it on the next circuit by extending the downwind a little, or reducing power more. And that`s tip five: if the last approach wasn`t perfect, make the logical adjustments to fix it on the next one. You’re the pilot in command, after all.


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