13 - Are your circuits too big

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Hello eveyone,

As I mentioned at our last meeting, I have noticed a tendency among some of our members to fly circuits that are too big to allow them to glide to the runway when their engine stops. What really intrigues me is that the members I see doing this most frequently are ultralight pilots, often flying with less reliable two stroke engines. This seems daft to me.

Do you always fly your circuits nice and close to Serpentine, so that you are within gliding distance of the airfield? And, if you don't, why don't you?

When learning to fly we are encouraged to make big circuits. For a flying school this has several advantages. It gives the students plenty of time to complete their checks, make their radio calls and think about what to do next. I don't want to sound too cynical, but it does also minimise risk to the school's aeroplanes and increase their utilisation by minimising the number of landings each aircraft makes per hour.

But, once you have your licence, you can think reasonably quickly, and feel more at home in the air, so there is no longer any need to fly enormous circuits. Your biggest risk is now engine failure (or fire, or propeller malfunction, or a passenger feeling ill, or the need to land promptly for any other reason). And the smaller you fly your circuit, the simpler and quicker it will be to get back on the ground expeditiously, and probably gliding. A tighter circuit also makes it easier to see and track other aircraft in the pattern, and annoys fewer neighbours.

But how do you fly a tighter circuit? You have probably been taught to fly straight ahead to 500 feet, turn left, climb to 1,000 feet, throttle back, trim, stabilise, turn left again, and just accept that puts you two miles away from the runway, and well beyond gliding range. Why not fly straight ahead to 700 feet, turn left, climb to 1,000 feet, turn left and then reduce power, trim, etc. That will put your downwind leg much closer to the runway. Or still make your crosswind turn at 500 feet, but turn again promptly at 900 feet, so you are level by 1,000 feet downwind. These are just suggestions.

Most often I see aeroplanes extending a long way downwind. Perhaps this is to igve them a nice, long final approach, but this is unsafe. The further you go downwind, the further you have to fight your way back into the wind, and all this time you cannot glide to the threshold. A good time to turn base leg is when the threshold is forty five degrees behind you.

And how to check whether you can glide to a safe landing from halfway along downwind (or as you turn from crosswind to downwind, or turn base, or from any other position in the circuit?) Try it. Pick a time when there is nobody else about, close your throttle, and fly a glide approach to a practice forced landing on the runway. While you are at it, do a few. It can only make you a better pilot.

Bob Grimstead
SABC Safety Committee