Short-Field Circuits

I loved the idea of landing at every one of the British Isles from the moment my boyfriend set me the challenge. One of the key reasons was that these islands have some of the most interesting airfields I would ever come across.

St. Mary’s airfield was no exception to this. At 600 metres, it was my shortest runway: my previous best had been Alderney at what suddenly seemed a luxurious 880 metres.

Obviously, I was not going to go to a short runway in order to practise my short-field landings – I wanted a large margin for error until I was confident that I could do this consistently.

So I took the Saratoga out a few days before the planned trip. I chose to do circuits at an unlicensed airfield with an 1100 metre runway and a friendly group of people who I hoped might give me some tips. As I sipped my coffee and explained what I was doing, the CFI said, “Hang on, just one moment” and dashed out. He came back in dragging two young men behind him, one of whom was grinning like a maniac.

He introduced the young men: the insecure looking one was John, a new instructor in his 20s. George was the one with the crazy smile. I was about to find out why.

“George is here for instruction but the plane he usually flies is out of action. We were about to cancel his lesson. How about you take them both out. John can sit up front with you and help you with your short-fields, George can see a different plane and how it flies.”

George was positively bouncing with excitement.

“Sounds great,” I said, wishing desperately I’d done some circuits for practice BEFORE coming here, so that I could look a little slicker.

John pulled me to the side. “I’m not complex rated,” he said in a low voice.

“That’s OK,” I smiled. “I don’t need help with that side of things. Just help me land it in less than 600 metres.”

It was a fine summer day and the circuit was busy. I stepped through my downwind checks out loud and smiled at John, who seemed a bit pale. Everything looked fine to me so I ignored him and carried on with my approach. Just before touchdown, I registered that John had said something but not what. I was concentrating on my landing point and didn’t take it in. We touched down with barely a bump. I cleaned up the plane, put the power on and once we were up in the air again I glanced at John.

“What was that?”

“Never mind.”

It was then that I replayed the sounds in my mind – what he’d said, in a low voice, with no conviction, was “Go around.”

I glanced at him again. He looked distinctly uncomfortable. Was my flying that bad? I continued around the circuit and this time listened out for him as I came down on final approach. He said nothing until we were back in the air.

“650 metres.”

I realised he was deeply uncomfortable in a plane that he could not control. He was estimating my landing run in order to give himself something to focus on. It seemed to work: his fists eventually unclenched. We did another few circuits, each one shorter than the last until John told me he thought I would have landed the Saratoga in under 500 metres.

“You are fine,” he told me. “Make this one to land.”

“That was fantastic,” exploded the teenager from the rear – I’d forgotten he was there. “What a great plane! I can’t believe how fast it goes!”

I felt bad. I fly the Saratoga slower than anyone I know – especially in the circuit where I’m going as slow as I can get away to give myself time to think. If he thought that was impressive, he should try going out with a real pilot.

I thanked John for putting up with me and he smiled, for the first time, and told me to enjoy my trip to the Isles of Scilly. “Great place. Great runway with an amazing hump. You’ll do fine.”

Now there was nothing left to do but get Anne packed up and head for St Mary’s.

[Names and identifying features have been changed]

Category: British Islands,

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