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5 Tips For Flying the Circuit

By Edited Dec 28, 2013 0 0

Every student ends up in the circuit.  The circuit is an agreed upon  pattern that fliers use to keep traffic separation and simplify the lives of air traffic controllers. Everybody executes the circuit at a specific airport the same way, so everybody knows where everyone should be.


There are, of course, methods and protocols that are fairly consistent.  Customarily the circuit is a left hand one, meaning the pilots turn left from one leg to the other, but on occasion they are right hand circuits.


The circuit consists of 5 parts: the take off leg, the crosswind leg, the downwind leg, the base leg and the final leg.  At times the last two legs are referred to as the approach legs.  


The take off leg starts off on the airstrip and goes on until the turn out, which is normally at five hundred feet above ground level.  A left turn delivers you to the crosswind leg.  With some airplanes, like a 170, you climb to one thousand feet above ground level through the crosswind. With others, like a 150, that doesn`t ascend as well, you could start the turn at 800 feet above ground level.  In any case, circuit height is commonly 1000 feet above ground level, and you`d usually want to arrive at circuit altitude the moment you`re ready to turn into the downwind.  If you turn at eight hundred feet above ground level you naturally will have to execute a climbing turn.


The downwind earns its name because we land into the wind. Another way of saying into the wind is upwind. The converse of upwind (which is the way you`re flying) is downwind, thence the name.  
The downwind is the leg during which you execute your pre-landing checks and make the call to ATC for your clearance. When you`ve performed the turn from crosswind to downwind check your spacing from the airstrip, be sure you`re parallel to it, get yourself in straight and level flight, and then get on the checks as soon as possible. The faster you perform this the more time you`ll have to make your call for clearance and take a look for traffic. That`s tip number 1. Get into straight and level flight without delay, look at your position and make your pre-landing checks. Be quick, but be consistent every time.  


After you`ve acquired clearance from ATC you can commence getting prepared for the turn to base.  The time to turn is when the end of the runway is at 45 degrees from a point in the centre of the rear wing root and the stabilizer. 


You have to slow down to go down, meaning you have got to arrive at your approach speed and attitude as soon as you can.  To achieve this you ought to strive to complete every thing exactly the same way each and every time. You have a bit of flexibility in the order, but typically you`ll back off the power first.  Pick a set RPM and stick the needle right on it. If you get into the white arc that allows application of flaps you can either apply flaps in stages or set them at 20 degrees all at once.  The critical thing is to be consistent every time. 


If you aren`t in the white arc right away you can begin the turn. This will bleed off energy levels and get you in the white arc.  At this time 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 the clearance and are ok with traffic).  When you reduce the power your nose will go down and you`ll have to adjust the yoke to maintain the preferred attitude.  When you add your flaps the nose will come up, and you`ll have to re-adjust. You can trim the aeroplane each time.  Trimming makes it easier to fly and permits you to concentrate on other things, like rate of descent.  You want to be descending at four hundred to five hundred FPM.  

Tip number three is to confirm your target RPM, your approach speed, and your rate of descent. Get them set up straight away during the base leg. 


A good approach makes for good landings.  Proper approach speed, throttle setting and descent rate will put you on a good approach, and if you do the whole lot consistently you`ll have consistently better chances of  setting up a good approach.  At this time on the base leg you should look at the runway to pick when to turn to final.  Consistency is important here  yet again : I like to set up the turn when the strip has passed the pitot tube and is almost at the strut.  You could select a different time, but be consistent.  If the end of your turn lines you up with the runway you`re performing it right.


All that remains is to stick on the glide path all the way to the runway and land. If you`ve done everything correctly and consistently you will do fine.  


The only problem with this is that loading conditions, wind and temperature can vary whenever we go up. Consistency with the inputs from flight to flight won`t put you at the same point on the landing strip all the time because your inputs are only half the equation.  You have to compensate for ambient conditions.  And this is the fourth tip: when you're consistent with the inputs you`ve established a consistent standard.  You can then adjust intelligently for wind, temperature or loading to stick on the optimal glide path. In fact, you will always need to adjust.  The tip is that you should be aware that you`re adjusting from a target that you established on purpose, not just guessing what you ought to do based on how things look.


The last tip is really uncomplicated, but it took me a while to notice it and put it into practice. You fly circuits to practice, and we do it repetitively. It makes perfect sense that if you`ve carried out everything consistently and you`re too high on your first approach you can repair it on the next circuit by extending your downwind a touch, or reducing the power setting more.  And that`s tip 5: if your last approach wasn`t excellent, make the  realistic adjustments to fix it on the next one. You're the pilot in command, after all.   

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