You may be a student pilot, or a seasoned pilot, but somehow, when you are flying into an unmanned airfield, with no ATC to tell you what to do, these errors seem to produce themselves. Whether it is a lack of attention, or flying habits which have become a bit lax, here is a reminder of things you want to pay caution to, and help yourself become a more professional pilot whatever your licence.
1. Flying overhead at the wrong altitude – Remember you do not arrive overhead an airfield at the circuit altitude, but rather at 2000ft above the airfield elevation, unless specified differently in the AIP. This has everything to do with planning, and you should know the airfield elevation, overhead height and circuit altitude of your destination before even taking off. The best point to fly overhead the field is usually in the centre of the runway – this keeps you well clear of aircraft that may be taking off, or landing at the thresholds. It also allows you to have a good overview of the airfield and ascertain the wind direction.
2. Not checking the circuit pattern direction – While we would all want to fly in a world where there is always a left-hand pattern, this is not always the case. An airfield may be affected by terrain, a danger area, or even airspace which does not allow each direction of the runway to have a standard pattern. Some airfields may have a left pattern for one direction and a right-hand pattern for the other direction. Assuming the direction, or hoping to ask someone over the radio once you get there is just dangerous. Check beforehand!
3. Inaccurate pattern flying – Ok, so now you know whether to turn left or right, but do you know what heading to fly, and what distance to fly before turning downwind? With your home airfield you probably have set land marks marking your turns, but when flying at an unfamiliar airfield you need to know the headings based on the final runway heading. It is a good idea to make a little diagram of the airfield on a sticky post-it note to help you out in case you have been distracted by other factors during your flight. If you have just taken off, remember fly at the correct climb speed for your aircraft and only begin your turn once you have reached 500ft. Turn onto your crosswind heading and maintain the climb until you have reached circuit altitude. When the runway is in your approximate 8 o’clock position (between 30 and 45 degrees), then execute a medium turn onto the downwind leg. The distance from the runway should be about 1-2NM, in a low-wing you will have the runway on your wingtip, and in a high-wing about half way up the strut. Maintain this until you are in a position to turn onto base, again, wait until you have the runway threshold in your 8 o’clock position. Determining when to turn onto finals is largely based on the crosswind factor – the closer it is to 90 degrees, and the stronger it is, the more you will have to undershoot or overshoot your turn.
4. Failing to check the wind direction – Already from about 10 NM out you should have obtained some idea of the wind direction by tuning into the local ATIS. Not only is knowing the wind direction critical for determining the runway to use, but it will also help you set up that ideal approach for that landing you always dream of. At some airfields the wind sock may be hard to spot, or discoloured from the sun. If there is no-one around that you can ask, there are some methods you can try here if you cannot see the windsock.
5. Cutting in – Not only is this a sign of very bad airmanship, but cutting in front of an aircraft in the circuit without asking, or making sure it is safe to do so, it is inexcusable. Can you imagine an already stressed out student in a C152 is turning base for finals and you cut in front of them? If you have a faster aircraft, make it known, check if it is safe to do so, consider the skills and aircraft of other pilots in the circuit, and make it clear what number your position in the circuit is i.e. 1, 2 or3 etc. If you cannot cut in, then the solution is to simply to extend your downwind, slow down if you can, be patient, polite and let everyone else know what you are doing.
6. Radio calls – Especially if the circuit is busy, think ahead of what you are going to say, and when you are going to say it. There is nothing more delightful than listening to professional radio work! Be as concise, and considerate as you can be, and others will appreciate you for it. Even if there appears to be no-one in the circuit, make your calls as if there were – you never know who may be on frequency, and maybe there is a pilot who is approaching with a radio failure (they may be able to hear you but cannot transmit).
7. Not checking airfield specifics – Circuit flying can be very annoying for people living in in residential areas close to an airfield. Certain airfields have policies in place to limit the noise produced by aircraft at certain times of the day. So rather than causing trouble for the local pilots, make sure you check the airfield specifics in the AIP beforehand.
8. Not checking the NOTAMS – Private pilots are especially guilty of this. Can you imagine arriving at an airfield only to find it is closed for repair? Now imagine if you are low on fuel and there is no suitable alternate close by? You get the picture. Nowadays there are NOTAM apps which you can install which are far easier to use than trying to dig the NOTAMS up from the CAA website. A quick check is reassuring that nothing is amiss at the airfield.
9. Speed control – Every pilot out there wants to do a good landing. However, managing your aircraft speed throughout the circuit will set you up for a good approach, which will set you up for a good landing. Trying to fix things is so much more work than maintaining that speed on the numbers.
10. Not knowing when to do a go-around – This is important. You do not need to land if the picture looks wrong! On final approach you want everything to be stable – the descent path, the rate of descent, the aircraft must be properly configured with only minor adjustments to be made and all checks completed. If you are not happy, rather go around sooner. Also don’t forget to let the other traffic know that you are ‘going around’, and reposition yourself with those in the circuit.