By Brendan Devine
An aspiring pilot learns why all those circuit drills really matter.
It was a Saturday morning in early April 2005 and I was progressing with enthusiasm through the general flying proficiency test (GFPT), flying twice a week. I was about to head out for my second solo session of circuits and had been allocated my Cessna 152 for the morning. Off I headed to the waiting plane.
I conducted the pre-flight and as usual my instructor came round behind me and did the same.
She was then handed a set of keys for a replacement C152 by another instructor, who advised us that we were to change planes. A case of ‘use company aircraft in preference to leased ones’. Fair enough.
We found our company aircraft and, once again, went through the walk around together. All the checks went smoothly and we taxied out to the run-up bays on the southern side of the airport. After uneventful run-up checks we were soon off for a few dual circuits.
After my instructor was satisfied with the way things were going we landed, taxied to the run-up bays and my instructor did some quick run-up checks before sending me out on my own again for three solo circuits.
Satisfied the aircraft was running as it should, my instructor sent me out with increased confidence. Bankstown Airport was becoming busier so I now had to line up at the holding point. After watching the line flow out between others’ landings I finally made the call. After I had lined up on 29 left a great sense of excitement and terror filled my body with adrenalin as I raced down the runway.
With just a hint of a breeze and not a cloud in sight there was no better time to enjoy the skies with equally enthusiastic aviators. I conducted a touch-and-go and took to the air again, doing what I had been trained to do.
With my second touch-and-go cleared the aircraft hit the pavement and after the noise of the flaps retracting I pushed the throttle in with a firm smooth action to get rolling as the runway shortened in front of me.
Something was not right. Still rolling down the runway my engine was coughing and spluttering and not at all sounding as it should. I could feel a small amount of power but it not the amount I was used to having on a take-off roll. I frantically checked the carby heat, mixture, fuel pump, temps and pressures, making sure everything was in its correct position and place.
Everything seemed OK and I couldn’t understand the engine inconsistency.
By this stage I had to make a decision and with the runway running out I had to lift the nose or schedule a meeting with the boundary fence. The plane was hopelessly sluggish and in a very slow and grumpy climb I needed to tell the tower of my pain or risk putting all the circuit traffic in a dangerous situation.
‘Tower, I have a problem with my engine.’
I must have sounded terrified but I focused on being a pilot, flying the aircraft and making a plan. Engine failure on upwind? Pick a place in front of me to land and do my checks. But I did have some power, so what were my options? I was hoping it wasn’t going to completely give up on me but for now I had limited power. I levelled out at 300 feet and started a shallow turn.
‘I have a partial engine problem. Turning crosswind back to the field’ was my call to a frantic tower trying to juggle other traffic.
‘ABC can you make runway 36?’
‘Yes I’ll take runway 36.’ But as I completed the turn at 300 feet I had the nose of the aircraft lined up with the centre runway. It was right in front of me and it was the longest runway, but I was approaching it in the opposite direction to traffic flow.
‘Can I take the centre runway?’ was my next call to the hard-working tower trying to get everyone out of my way.
‘ABC, that runway has traffic operating on it, continue for runway 36.’
That was fine, but I had to turn sharply to the left to line myself up and by now was realising I would have to descend quickly if I was to make this rarely used short-crossing runway. As I completed the turn I was well and truly past the threshold, but I really needed to put the plane on the tarmac. I closed the throttle, pushed the nose down, and touched down on the centreline about three quarters of the way down the runway. I stared in front of me and needed to make another decision. I could brake very heavily, or trust there were no holes in the grass ahead and just keep rolling. I studied the few hundred feet in front of me and it looked OK, so I rolled over the opposite threshold and smoothly over the grass and settled her on the taxiway pavement all in one piece.
My last call to the tower was a very simple ‘ABC has landed safely and is evacuating the aircraft’.
I shut the aircraft down and, with considerable relief, got out to greet the airport operations officer. He then shot off to collect my instructor who had been watching events unfold from where I left her. When she arrived I really didn’t know what to expect, but she simply stuck her hand out and congratulated me for my efforts.
It was then that I realised that I had been fortunate to choose a training organisation that was not just a flying school, but a solid business that valued students’ needs and understood that a student should have an instructor who maintained a professional relationship for the entire course. I had also refused to stick with only the minimum criteria, but always insisted on being fluent with my training.
My instructor was a big part of the reason why I got that plane on the ground without destroying it, myself, or anybody else. It struck us simultaneously that it hadn’t even been the intended aircraft for my flight.
It turned out that a magneto had dropped out and being left with only one had caused the loss of power. I was relieved because things could have ended very differently in the event of a complete engine failure.
The tower did a cool job of keeping everyone away from me. My instructor told me that she knew something was up when she saw the other circuit traffic overflying the runways, conducting go-arounds and being kept at 1000 feet in the circuit. Ground traffic came to a standstill and I felt like an injured Olympic marathon runner entering the main stadium in last place.
I gained a new respect for all emergency training and I happily got my GFPT just four months later. Emergency training isn’t just drills. You are dealing with real potential situations. I now hold a PPL and when I listen to student pilots going off to conduct circuit training I hope their instructor and school are as solid on emergency training as mine were.
Oh, and that much-needed cross runway on Australia’s busiest airport is no longer there.