I haven’t posted about flying for a while as we’ve been so focused on the build, but I’ve been doing as much of it as time, money and weather will permit!
Today it was pretty windy but otherwise lovely and clear, so being a glutton for punishment I decided to find somewhere I could get some crosswind practice in 🙂
Crosswind landings are tricky, I don’t think I really got to grips with them before passing my PPL. I could safely deal with a few knots, but anything bigger and the picture didn’t really make sense to me. I got the theory but seemed to end up doing the wrong thing in the last few seconds before landing, which made me nervous about tackling anything stronger.
I think a number of people go through their flying lives just avoiding days and airfields with crosswinds (which is fine if you have that option), but I need to be able to cope with them safely if I’m going to do long-distance touring and visit the places I want to, so I’m determined to crack them!
Geekery (I advise you to skip this section if not interested!)
There are a few different techniques to land in crosswinds and those who teach the subject know a lot more than me, so I’m going to just concentrate on the method I use (the combination method for those in the know…), and link to this useful article for anyone keen to know more about alternatives. I chose the combination method as it seems to work best in the plane I’m currently flying – I’m sure there are planes for which other techniques are better.
Without a crosswind, you approach the runway head-on and try to keep the plane on the extended centreline. When the wind is blowing from your right or left (at least when it’s strong enough to have a noticable effect), you have to compensate for this by ‘crabbing’ your aircraft – pointing it into the wind. The effect, if you get it right, is that the plane still travels down the centreline, but you’re not actually pointing it at the runway. If I’m honest, it’s bit disconcerting. On a gusty day like today, you also have to keep adjusting the angle of the plane as you might just get it bang on and then the wind changes…
When you get to the last stage of your landing, you have to ‘take the crab off’ to get the aircraft straight so it will land 1) on the runway rather than beside it 2) in a way that doesn’t immediately shoot it off the runway and 3) roughly in the middle. All of these are considered desirable. You therefore use the opposite rudder to straighten up the plane and point it down the centreline of the runway, and at the same time you have to turn your ailerons into the wind, the effect of which is that the upwind wing drops and compensates for the drift.
When flying circuits at an airfield you have to bear the wind direction and intensity in mind. Broadly speaking you should be trying to fly in a rectangle – away from the runway in a straight line, then 4 90-degree turns and eventually approach the runway in (approximately) a straight line. But on some legs the wind is behind you, some legs it’s pushing you either towards or away from the runway, and some (usually your final approach) it’s a headwind slowing you down.
So a rule of thumb is that where you point the plane isn’t necessarily where you fly. All adds to the fun!
Choosing an airfield
We have different criteria depending on the purpose of our flight – these can include proximity to people we’d like to visit, scenery en route or at the airfield, whether the airfield has a nice cafe or interesting things to do nearby (walking, museums, hangars of vintage or otherwise exciting aircraft). Today it was more about the runway direction (as I was seeking out a crosswind) and the cost of multiple landings so I could get some proper practice in.
We decided on Oxford as it does well on both – their runway direction is 01 / 19 (10 degrees or 190 degrees) and the wind was coming from everything from 05 to 09 today, and they charge £12 per landing and circuits are free, which is a major bonus. Obviously if they’re busy they’ll either decline to let you do circuits, require you to stick to a set time slot or land you out to make way for other traffic. But this is an incredible deal if you’re used to an airfield that charges a fee every time you touch the runway and regularly holds or lands you out to make way for jet traffic anyway!
Most airfields charge by the landing – I’ve seen the following models:
1) Charging the same whether you are doing a ‘touch and go’ (setting off immediately to join the circuit and come in again), or whether you’re doing a ‘full stop’ landing (where you stop completely and leave the runway to park). This can get quite expensive quite quickly! Example: I haven’t actually landed anywhere with this model as I’ve consciously avoided it! My guess is it would be done to discourage light aviation at busy commercial airports or places with lots of instrument traffic.
2) Charging a smaller fee per circuit and a higher fee for a full stop landing. Example: Biggin Hill and Lydd do this, and in my experience it’s the most common model in the UK.
3) Charging a set fee for a full stop landing and having a different flat fee for a (set or unlimited) number of circuits. This is especially common in airfields with a lot of training and flying schools. Example: Duxford charges £20 for an hour of circuits plus entry to the Imperial War Museum, which I think is an excellent deal! Headcorn also does unlimited circuits for £30.
4) Charging for full stop landings but not for circuits. Example: Oxford is the first place I’ve come across with this model and I will definitely be back!
Of course the list above isn’t exhaustive – many airfields have special rates for home aircraft (those that are based or kept in hangars there) and some have a yearly membership fee for unlimited landings, which can be excellent value.
After Oxford, we decided to land at Turweston. It’s somewhere we’ve visited before, but it was before I got my license so I haven’t landed there yet. It’s the headquarters of the Light Aircraft Association, which is the organisation responsible for regulating and licensing kit and homebuilt aircraft, so it’s something of a hub for interesting and self-built planes. Always fun to see what has flown in! We last visited when the new control tower was under construction, and it’s now open with an excellent cafe called the Flying Pig, where you have views across the runway and apron and can watch the action whilst having a coffee – highly recommend it!
Take-off from Biggin was somewhat interesting – spot wind was 18 kts gusting 32 and pretty much straight across, so the plane was airborne in no time at all and bouncing around all over the place! My navigation went reasonably well – I have done the route between Gatwick and Heathrow airspace a few times now, and had no trouble finding Oxford once we got closer – it’s a pretty distinctive city. The airfield is to the north of the city near Kidlington.
Oxford is PPR (prior permission required) only, so I’d already booked in with Operations and had a chat with ATC to get permission to join the circuit on arrival. I did 5 circuits and landings – three of them acceptable, one very good and one where J was giving me emphatic pointers in the last 10 seconds or so!
I was grateful as ever to have the luxury of a safety pilot on board, as I don’t think I would trust myself to fly solo on a day like today when I’m so close to my limits – but actually if you’re lucky enough to be able to try, the experience is so important. That’s also one of the many reasons I’m grateful to my PPL instructor – although I always cursed him for taking me up on crappy weather days during training, it was certainly good to learn with someone more competent sitting next to me just in case!
I think the crosswinds are feeling a little more intuitive after today, I will just need to keep practicing.
It’s only a short 15-20min hop from Oxford up to Turweston, so I took this leg as well. It’s a good navigation exercise as a lot happens in a short space of time – you have a couple of ‘danger areas’ to avoid so you can’t go direct, and there are some very active gliding sites to be aware of.
Turweston was ridiculously busy, as it turns out. Their runway direction is 09 / 27, so they were much better geared up for today’s winds, with the result that everyone seemed to have flocked there at once! When we called up, despite having booked in online beforehand, we were told they were operating a ‘one in, one out’ policy as they had run out of parking. We took a long route in from north of Banbury, and they eventually said they had some space – of course everyone who had been orbiting in the vicinity immediately called in and I thought we may have to hold a bit longer, but tower cleared us to come in along with 3 others.
There was some confusion on my part as it appears from the briefing charts that there is a very well-defined and set circuit pattern at Turweston, but no one else seemed to be flying it! I was in the position marked for the downwind leg, and there were already two people flying considerably closer to the runway who also claimed to be on downwind. I slowed down and let them go ahead and J took the radio to make everyone aware of our position so I could concentrate on flying safely and keeping away from other aircraft. Turweston is a ‘radio’ frequency (not air traffic control) so they can only give information, not instructions, and when it gets really busy as it was today, you just do and say what is necessary to keep a safe distance from the other traffic. Everyone got down without incident – self-regulation tends to work quite well as no one really sets out wanting to cause a crash!
We had lunch in the cafe and watched some drama unfolding on the runways while we did so – a motor glider had lost radio contact and made an approach to the grass runway whilst another aircraft was occupying it. He then veered sharply when he saw the other aircraft and realised that the hard (tarmac) runway was also occupied. He almost landed on the grass taxiway in between the hard and soft runways, before eventually going around as he’d got very unstable having changed his mind several times. He made a further attempt shortly afterwards and landed safely on the grass runway, but it certainly gave the controller (and presumably the pilot of the two other aircraft) a heart-attack!
Further drama occurred just before we departed – an AA5 was doing its run-ups on the main apron and was positioned too close to the line of parked aircraft, as well as angled towards one of them in particular. This was one of the RVs (which are pretty light anyway), and it wasn’t chocked or tied down, which in winds like today may have been a mistake. It began to spin around in the wash from the AA5’s propeller – eventually losing control and skidding towards a couple of the other aircraft in the line. Luckily J and I had just arrived to prepare our plane for departure, so I saw it spinning and yelled, and we both ran and grabbed a wing each to stop it before it hit anything. We know exactly how much work and care goes into building an RV, and we couldn’t bear to see someone else’s get damaged! We never found the owner, but J held it still while I went to get help from several other pilots and the fuel operative from the airfield, who helped us move the aircraft onto the grass and secure it with chocks so it didn’t blow away again.
- Even if it’s not windy (which today it definitely was!!), secure your aircraft with chocks or tie it down. It takes virtually no time, and it’s not worth the potential damage if you don’t.
- If you’re going to take on fuel, consider doing so on arrival – especially for lighter aircraft it will mean you’re less likely to get affected by wind or propwash. Preferably combine this with the above, but it’s a good backup to add weight if you have no access to chocks or tie-downs.
- When doing run-ups and power checks, please make sure you don’t point at other aircraft – you could wreck someone else’s through sheer carelessness. The best case is you get away with it, the worst is that you cause damage either by stones or debris getting caught in your propwash and flicked at high speed in random directions, or the propwash itself blowing a parked aircraft out of its position.
I love days like today – whilst the wind makes for challenging landings, the visibility is so incredible that you can literally see hundreds of kilometers, pretty much from the West to the East of England, when flying at a couple of thousand feet!
We were just airborne from Turweston and J told me he was ‘enjoying the South Downs’. I assumed he was joking but actually he wasn’t – we could definitely see them! Our friend, who overtook us returning from Alderney at 7,500ft (see third picture below of him doing just that…), says he could see the whole of England and France!
I always look forward to the approach to Biggin on days with visibility like this, as you can see central London really beautifully and pick out all of the landmarks. I was quite pleased that J decided to fly this leg, as it meant I could just enjoy it and take photos. I don’t have pictures of the Oxford or Turweston approaches – sorry – as I was somewhat busy then!
- ICAO code: EGTK
- Elevation AMSL: 270ft
- Runway direction & length: 01/19, 1,300m
- Runway surface: Tarmac
- Landing fee (at time of visiting): Landing £12 and they didn’t charge me for circuits.
- Facilities: Toilets and a brilliant pilot’s lounge in the terminal. Fuel, customs & immigration available.
- Transport links: Easy 15-20min taxi into central Oxford, and I’m told London is reachable in 1hr 30mins.
- ICAO code: EGBT
- Elevation AMSL: 438ft
- Runway direction & length: 09 / 27, 1,000m
- Runway surface: Tarmac
- Landing fee (at time of visiting): Landing £12, discounts for LAA members.
- Facilities: Toilets and an excellent cafe called the Flying Pig. There is always an excellent selection of kit and homebuild aircraft around.
- Transport links: 12-15 miles from a train station so you really need to hire a car or take a taxi to get anywhere else. Most people visit for the cafe and the interesting planes, so it’s less critical to escape!