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Take-offs, circuits and landings

I don’t even know where to begin with this post. My current position in this rather enormous, and oftentimes overwhelming, learning curve is one that keeps me buzzing with elation and smiling until my jaw hurts. I just feel as though a thick, heavy fog of uncertainty and doubt has given way to a milder mist of occasional anxiety and nerves speckled with bursts of happiness. It’s not because I am suddenly executing perfect, smooth landings, immaculate take-offs and calm circuits that I am overcome with giddy delight. But rather that I am no longer living in terror that I am going to be found out for being a fraud, for not being smart enough, for not being able to ‘handle’ flying on my own. I have been waiting for my instructor to declare that I am never going to be able to grasp the complexities of flight and physics, that I am foolish for even trying and I should stop wasting my time (and money) on this reckless hobby of mine. Instead, my instructor is giving me high-fives, big smiles and encouragement. Apparently I am ‘getting’ this whole flying thing. 

The take offs are the best bit. As always, before my first lesson in take-offs I had read up on the relevant theory and was as prepared as I could be. We hopped into the plane and I taxied over to the runway where, to my great surprise my instructor said “well, you’ve seen me take-off plenty of times so there’s no need for me to show you again, you can take-off straight away”. My stomach lurched. It’s hard to describe the feeling of taxiing out onto an enormous runway (big enough for jets to land on) in the tiny Cessna 172. It feels overwhelming as we sit crammed in the front of this shimmying, stuttering plane, engine warming up and readying itself for flight, the runway stretches over 2500m/8500ft ahead making me feel very small indeed and out of my depth entirely.

Suddenly we receive clearance for take off and with Air Traffic Control watching there is no room for nerves. It’s time for full power and a fair bit of courage. Holding the plane straight and steady with the rudders as our airspeed gains and RPM comes alive I pull back on the control column just as I feel she’s ready and as quick as that we are airborne! I’m whooping into my headset and cheering as we continue our ascent up into circuit height. I did it! I cannot believe how free it makes me feel, how liberating, how overjoyed. My self confidence is boosted, but there’s not much time for celebrating as I now have to fly the circuit, focusing on climbing to and then staying at the correct altitude, all while preparing for landing, watching out for other traffic and feeling the deep knot of tension in my gut as we turn on finals ready for landing.

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As I lined us up for landing, lower and lower, reducing power, flaps down, I have a sneaking suspicion that I can’t feel my instructor on the controls. At. All. Save for a few adjustments from him here and there, he didn’t appear to be doing much of anything when it came to the landing. After an hour of doing take-offs, circuits and landings in a variety of touch-and-gos, land-and-holds and overshoots I questioned him and his reply shocked me; “hate to say this Hafi, but those landings.. they were all you” before giving me a big high-five and a laugh! I love that he doesn’t over-control my lessons, he lets me make mistakes, only taking control if he sees my mistakes going too far. So many times I catch him just enjoying the view from the window, which both alarms me and gives me confidence in his confidence in me!

Since that first lesson on take-offs, circuits and landings, I have done a further 5 hours of this repetitive cycle. The first lesson was easy compared to the second session. The first lesson was in the most ideal no-wind conditions. The circuit was easy to fly, I had no issues with crosswinds or turbulence from the nearby mountains. The second day of lessons however, were a totally different story. I spent 2.2 hours in the circuit just going around and around, landing and taking off. This time however there was a pretty rough mountain wave buffeting us wildly in the crosswind and downwind legs. As the airport is in a valley, in certain conditions the wind rushes over the surrounding mountains and down into the valley below, churning all of the air up in its path, including us in our little plane. We bob about on the eddying air currents like a tiny sailboat on a wild, relentless sea and all the while I am trying to keep the plane flying straight and level smoothly. 

So rather than some nice relaxing circuits to give me a chance to breathe and prepare for the landings I find myself wrestling this little Cessna around the sky. Because the circuit only takes about 5 minutes to fly, by the time I am at circuit height on the downwind leg, it’s time to start doing our pre-landing checks while awaiting landing clearance from the control tower. By the time we have clearance we are already on finals, with flaps down, coming in low. There is an alarmingly short amount of time to think or worry about anything. To get as many take-offs and landings in as possible we do touch-and-go’s (as soon as you land you keep rolling, bring flaps up, carb heat off, full power and take off again immediately) to maximise efficiency, but going from one take off, through a circuit, landing and taking off again all in the space of 5 minutes, again and again and again for an hour is mentally and physically exhausting to say the least. Thanks to all of the focusing and adrenaline my lunch break between flights is spent searching for a sugary drink and snack to replenish my depleted energy.

In my latest lesson we spent 2.7 hours in the most beautiful, calm, no-wind conditions and it was a joy! Take-offs were going smoothly, circuits were clean and calm, my landings were improving nicely, with more and more being done by me on final approach too (ie. flaps). I’m still working on my judgement when it comes to how many degrees of flaps I need, speed, angle and when to cruise over the runway but I’m getting there. As both my dad and my instructor say, flying is all about feeling the plane, and I do at least, feel that I am beginning to grasp that. This was the first lesson that hadn’t ended in a headache and burnout, I felt as though I could have carried on for hours. But I decided to call it quits and end the session on a high, when you get tired you make silly mistakes and it’s important to recognise this and not push yourself too far.

After each of these lessons (except the last one!) I made my way to a local coffee shop for some much needed sugary drinks and snacks, but could hardly place an order due to my being completely unable to speak coherently from exhaustion and immediately forgetting what it was that I had ordered. Heed my warning; plan nothing after any lessons in spins, spirals and landings!

Things I've learnt

  • Plan ahead to keep your schedule free after your first few flight lessons in take-offs, circuits and landings. Believe me, you’ll probably want to curl up into a ball and sleep afterwards!
  • Bring snacks for between/after flights to keep your energy levels up.
  • Try to sleep well the night before, you want to be fresh and focused for your lesson. If you start to lag behind on studies or turn up less than focused you’re wasting your money and time as well as your instructor’s.
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