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only a circuit?

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a circuit is not just a circuit, 
it’s an opportunity to perfect your skills

WITH EVERY LAUNCH we will perform a landing. And that landing will colour our perception of the entire flight. For should that landing go bad, we will soon forget the climb to cloud-base, the spectacular views, the feats of derring-do, the local sightseeing tour, the 100/200 km triangle, the gentle but progressive wave lift or the off-the-clock thermals. And good landings start, as we all know, with good circuits.... read on!

So why do I wax lyrical on the most mundane of flight procedures, the circuit? After a three-year lay-off from gliding, I re-soloed in a K-13 last summer on a rather soarable day. The K-13 was needed back for an instructional flight, so I said I’d only be fifteen minutes. I could have stayed up for an hour at least. But I was true to my word and returned as agreed. For the remainder of that summer I struggled to connect with any decent thermal on a solo flight. I had a few good ones with instructor ballast on board, but not one on my own – so no Bronze legs. I scratched here and there way beyond the time of a normal glide down from a winch launch; but, alas, no 90-minute specials.

Being stuck in early-solo purgatory inevitably means I was also stuck hanging around the launch-point for the rest of summer and into winter. And I became more and more dismayed at the number of fellow students turning down a training flight because it was going to be ‘just another @!*% circuit’. And while perhaps half the time ‘just-another circuit’ can be pretty routine and occasionally a bit of a handful, they can go very badly wrong, and being able to deal with it becomes rather mandatory if you haven’t got your flying ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card in the back seat. Here are some examples from my logbook:

flight #279 While I was working in Bristol I flew at Aston Down. A really big and very flat site. Big flat circuits. Plenty of room to land in. So I’m in the circuit after a short soaring flight. No monster thermals to be found. But I’m on a gliding course so I can simply take another launch as soon as I land with no additional cost to me. I’ve done nine circuits in one day here, so I know where the grooves in the sky are. As I pass over the nice house with gravel drive just before low key point, on a left-hand southerly day, the vario makes such a low tone that the K-8 I’m in almost shivers. 
Actually, the K-8 is shivering because it is falling out of the sky. The needle is hard against the bottom stop and it looks like we’re going down the chimney of the house. Ridge site training cuts in; a bit more speed on, 60° of bank, I turn 180, straighten out and almost immediately round out and land. I get out and can feel the sweat, but I’m down safe with no harm done. The K-13 with the course instructor lands a few yards from me and he runs over … I brace myself for a debrief. “Bloody hell, did you hit that sink too?” he says. “Er, yeah,” I reply cautiously. “Good job. How did you know how to handle it?” “Where I learned that’s almost normal,” I reply.

flight #331 In a K-8 again, this time back home at Camphill last summer; I come off the top of the wire and head for a candidate cloud. It barely keeps me up, but, as I turn round to look at the airfield, the north end turns white as four bits of big white plastic spread themselves evenly out on the grass. Looks like the sky has stopped working. On the next turn I see a couple more white crosses, this time more central. While I have plenty of flights over the previous five years, this is the first solo flight since I re-soloed, so my limits are set conservatively and it doesn’t take long for me to get down to my go-to-high-key height. So I go. And look out. And see a Puchacz on long final. And a bit low. The trigonometry worked through the brain cells quite quickly and I could see that we were pretty much in contention. There was limited room on the field and I had no idea where they were going for. Having already trimmed for approach speed, I loitered somewhat and then crabbed slightly away from the field to give the Puchacz time to do its thing. I had no idea if they knew I was above and to their left, heading to the north end. Eventually I had to turn onto final, but I didn’t want to go too far to the right as there was nowhere to go. I kept slightly left, but still ended up above and behind the Puch. Once I was confident where their ground objective was I could pick a spot and get on with my landing, which ended up about halfway down the field with plenty to spare. Not a particularly sweaty one this time and I was very pleased with my detached, objective choices, but I could see how it would have been a lot of hard work a few years ago when I had less time in my log book.

flight #332 In case you thought it was all good news, here’s my memo to self that I’ve still a hell of a lot to learn. On my very next flight no less. t’s an easterly with a good bit of south in it, which means the west edge of the nearby ridge is sink central. I’ve done a few east wind flights, but I need a check-flight and the poor old assistant instructor has pulled the short straw. Not a great performance on the winch launch, but high enough to see if any part of the south ridge is working as it appears to be for our intrepid senior instructor of the day and his student. It’s soon take time to head back to the field and, as I head over the gully at the south-east end while trying to plot me a circuit, the back seat asks me my intentions as I’ve stopped talking.

I’ve clearly got a bad plan brewing with a right hand circuit along the west ridge line with an easterly component in what would be massive sink. We hit it and my brain freezes – spinning its wheels so hard I can’t even say I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing. Thankfully my instructor gets the message and very pro-actively puts us back on the ground. It was a great example of taking control of the situation rather than dithering as you fall out of the sky, but at the time it was embarrassing and left me dry in the mouth.

We tried it again (a proper circuit that is) and I did much much better this time, now that I had the least clue of what I was up against and what was required to do about it. It still needed some work, but I’d grasped the nettle. And the moral of these tales? If it’s only a circuits day, think “what can I do that will give me more experience?” Because it is that experience we fall back on when our circuit goes wrong – either from a misjudgement on our part, a misjudgement by someone/thing else, or just sheer bad luck. So take a ride with an instructor and try one of these training flights I’ve enjoyed in the past eight years as an early solo pilot:

• A high circuit, aka too close How can you modify the circuit or fly differently or use the controls differently? This is a common one from my logbook – coming back at a very conservative height by myself and having to lose height in some way. Get a good picture of how it all looks.

• A low circuit, aka too far Not such a low circuit that you can’t get back to the airfield, but a low circuit where you are at the bottom of the ‘funnel’. Again, take a mental photograph for future reference.

• A low low circuit This happens when I’m verbally assisted into thermal sniffing and the thermal isn’t working – then the back seat watches to see what happens. Turn in early on downwind and enjoy the walk back!

• Random awkward position Let the back seat talk you into somewhere not-so-good to begin the circuit. How do you cope with the different scenery?

• Random sink found As simulated by the back seat opening the spoilers – your job is not to try to close it, but to fly the circuit as if it were sink.

• On circuit with no warning It’s better to have time to settle into the circuit pattern, but we don’t always get that luxury. How do you fare when you have it all to do in half the time?

• Altimeter covered Excellent practice for when you come to do your off-field landing tests. Helps keep your head out of the cockpit.

• ASI covered (just the student’s!) What if your pitot got blocked? Do you know your aircraft well enough that you know what attitude is needed and what it sounds/ feels/looks like for setting a safe approach speed?

• Fly and talk How well do you know a basic topic like simple stalls? Do you know it so well that you can list the five basic symptoms while flying the stall itself?

• Launch failure – high It may seem like it’s only an abbreviated circuit,
but the chance to practise a good crisp clean recovery plus the rest is useful too. • Launch failure – medium Land ahead or a 180, or a 270, or a what? You have very little time to decide.

• Sideslip You never know when this may help you kill off some height.
The attitude can take some getting used to; get used to it now.

• Spot landings Land where you plan, 
then do it twice more to prove it was skill and not luck!

• Field landing demo/practice You don’t have to wait to be in the throes of your Bronze training to start them now. In fact, any relatively uncompromising circuit can have an element of practice at precision round-out point and energy management.

• Actual field landing practice Do it in a motorglider. It’s one thing landing on a different part of your own field, it’s another to have a totally alien (smaller) field down below and to plan a circuit and approach into it. and to plan a circuit and approach into it.

• Fly from the back seat Not so much for the budding instructor-in-waiting, but for a totally different view from what was a familiar aircraft.

• The local gotcha! 
Every site has a gotcha, however subtle or obvious it may be. Ask an instructor what else your site has got that’s not on this list.

Circuits may inevitably be the main or only option for training some days. If you’ve gone to the trouble of getting to your club, maximize your investment with some additional core flying training.


A circuit is not just a circuit, but the opportunity to perfect your skills. Note that some items may not be suitable, or useful, at your site and you should not try them by yourself unless you’ve cleared them with your instructor.