When you learn to fly and you have mastered the basics of flying straight and level, turning, stalling, climbing and descending, you learn something called a circuit. This is something that you do after every take off and before every landing.
Imagine the runway pointing into the wind. Then draw a rectangle with its long side being the runway. Make sure the rest of the rectangle is on the left of the runway. Then raise the whole lot off the ground to 500 feet for ultralight and 1000 feet for general aviation aircraft. Then break the runway line in two and bend it on both sides down until they each touch the ground. If you have got the same picture as I have, it goes a little like this:
You stand on the runway, take off and climb to 500 or 1000 feet, turn left, fly until the runway is 45 behind you, on the cross wind leg, then turn left again, parallel to the runway on the downwind leg, then fly until you are past the beginning of the runway and you can see it 45 degrees behind you, you turn left again onto base leg, if you're in a general aviation aircraft, you then descend to 500 feet, but in an ultralight you already are at 500 feet, and fly until you're in-line with the runway and turn left onto final where you descend and land.
This process is called "making a circuit" and every aircraft on earth does it. There are some airports which have two runways side-by-side and they have left-hand circuits and right-hand circuits, or strips that have mountains or a town on the left, which also have a right-hand circuit.
So here I was with my instructor in the co-pilot seat behind me in an aircraft called a "Drifter". Imagine a long aluminium pole with a tail on one end and two seats on the other end. Then picture a motor-cycle cowling in front of the first seat, a wing above the co-pilot, an engine behind the co-pilot with the propeller behind that and two landing wheels below the co-pilot. There's a dinky little tail wheel too. Paint it fire-engine red and you have the Drifter.
I was doing three or four circuits with touch-and-go's, where you take off, fly a circuit, land, accelerate again and take off to do it all again. After about four circuits I would land and get out of the aircraft, stretch my legs and have a little think about what I had done and how I could improve it. On one of these occasions the instructor, Rod, asked me: "Do you think you can do this yourself?", "Do what?" I asked. "Fly a circuit on your own." "Sure." "You're sure?" "Yep." "Ok, just taxi to the side of the strip and I'll get out." So I taxi to the edge of the runway and Rod gets out of the aircraft. He's wearing a helmet with an intercom and its got a long cable attached to it. He's locked up his seat belts and stands next-to me. "Now you have three hours worth of petrol in the tank, so if it doesn't feel right the first time, just go-around and do it again. Concentrate on looking at the end of the strip and gently put her down."
He unplugged the intercom and walked away.
So here I am, sitting in a live aircraft, thinking to myself: "Now what?" So I decide that its best to tell the world what my plan is: "All stations Narrogin, Ultralight Papa 973, backtracking runway 28." (Eg, all the people in Narrogin (where I'm flying), I'm on the runway, and I'm taxiing to the end of runway 28 where I'm going to take off.)
I taxi to the end of the strip and turn around thinking: "Ok Onno, here you are, in a plane, its still on the ground, you don't have to do this, no-one will think you're a big wuss if you don't do this, you can just taxi back and call it all a big joke."
Then I think: "Nah, bugger it, I can do this, I know enough to get me round and on the ground in one piece, and besides, Rod wouldn't like me to bend his plane so he wouldn't have let me if I wasn't really ready and really it does feel great to be here."
So I make my radio call: "All stations Narrogin, Ultralight Papa 973, rolling 28 for First Solo." (All the people in Narrogin, get out of the way, there is this guy who is green, taking off from runway 28.) The rules actually say that I should say: "for a circuit.", but I figured, every pilot knows that First Solo is a circuit and that way they still know what's happening.
So I release the transmit button and open the throttle to make it go. Just then the radio chirps: "Congratulations and good luck." and I'm thinking: "Cool, I'm not on my own up here." (We later figured out that the caller must have been a jumbo pilot, overflying from Perth to Melbourne, listening on the area frequency.)
Anyway I take off and boy does this girl fly with only one person in it. I'm up to circuit height in no time flat and I have more than enough time to look around and smell the roses as it were, since literally smelling the roses requires an illegal ground clearance if you get my drift. I turn onto crosswind and think to myself: "I remember when there was so much to do just getting round, and look at me now, here I am making this all happen all by myself, Yay!" While looking for places to land if the engine fails I turn onto downwind looking at more places to land, thinking: "There is enough height to get to the strip if I need to." While I'm turning I make my radio call: "All stations Narrogin, Ultralight Papa 973, turning downwind for 28." I do my downwind checks, which I remember with the following word: "BUMFISH".
Breaks (loose), Undercarriage (still attached), Motor (still running nicely thank you), Fuel (about three hours minus two minutes left), Carbyheat (uhm not in this plane, but in the other one, a Jabiru), Harness (secure as well as my helmet, in fact I tighten the seat belt just a tad), Carbyheat (still not in this plane).
Now I'm halfway downwind and more than enough time to look around some more. I can get used to this. This is just excellent, give me more adrenaline please, I'm enjoying this. As I turn onto base I look down the length of final to see if there are any other planes about, since we share the strip with the glider club; the flying doctor likes this strip too; so do many other people, even city folk like me! No planes about so that's good. The wind sock is still pointing in the same direction, mostly down, which means little or no wind near it. I turn onto final and have to figure out where my descending engine setting is, since there is now only one person in the plane and so we now weigh "one unit Rod" less. (A really exact science, you can tell.)
So here I am figuring this out as I get to the flare, when you change from flying down to flying straight above the runway. I look at the end of the runway and slowly start reducing the power: "Woops, a little too fast, a bit more, concentrate Onno, a little less, a little more, there, that feels good, woops, concentrate, fly the plane straight, then when you've done that, land, here we go, that's straight, reduce the power, jiggle the ailerons, just a little bit, reduce the power, start pulling back the stick, reduce the power, hey this feels great, reduce the power, pull back the stick, hey there's the ground, touch-down, power is fully back and so is the stick, slow down with the breaks, now turn around, relax, you did it, taxi back to the hanger, smile like crazy, wave at Rod and Catherine (Rods wife who is taking lots of photos), turn off the radio, turn off the fuel pump, the mags, the main switch and unplug the intercom, undo your seat belt, smile, yay I did it, yay, yay, yay, get out of the plane and start breathing again."
This article was published in "Gosport and Goggles" and "Australian Ultralights".