As I said previously, the weather forecast for the Club Competitions looked pretty dire but when I awoke on Saturday morning, it wasn’t as bad as first thought. I arrived at the Aero Club as club captain Michael was listening to the ATIS and apart from some low cloud, the wind were reasonably fickle, although the forecast 2000’ wind was a brisk 20 knots at 240 degrees magnetic.
After a discussion with the instructors and ATC Runway 36L was chosen as the landing grid runway because the recent rain had made the grass runways unusable for landings. First competition of the morning was Landings, both Senior and Junior comps got underway. Due to the wind on the ground being variable and light, there was a bit of sheer around which made things interesting to say the least.
My first competition was Senior Landings, and I chose to do it in a 172, which in hindsight was probably not the best idea. The takeoff went OK (it wasn’t being judged in any case) but when I got late downwind and started slowing the plane up we momentarily flew through some cloud and I had to push the nose over to get below it. Judging the turn to finals was the most challenging part because of the sheer, the first time round I turned way too late and had to turn back towards the runway centreline, the second time I turned slightly too early but was able to let the drift carry me back on track. One of the landings was pretty nasty, I realised I need to get more crosswind circuit time in. Based on my performance I think Propellorhead would have won our duel easily.
Then came the Senior Circuits. Fortunately the conditions were largely the same as when I had done the landings and I knew what to expect so I did much better. The second landing especially I was most proud of, I really nailed the crosswind technique. I was told later I had landed in the grid, but to be honest I wasn’t paying attention to that at the time, I was concentrating on landing properly, so getting into the grid was a bonus.
Getting towards the middle of the day ATC were getting concerned about the wind as it was swinging towards the south and aircraft were experiencing a 3-4 knot tailwind component. After some consideration the consensus was that when we stopped for lunch we would pack up the grid and move it to 18R afterwards for the afternoons flying.
The turnout was surprisingly good considering the marginal conditions. The landing competition was fierce, especially in the professional category where we saw some very good examples of aircraft control. What made it even better was that none of the pilots in the professional category were current so the playing field was pretty level. Unfortunately for them, the wind decided to swing north again later on in the afternoon and intensified, so things got quite lively. I couldn’t help but feel a large amount of trepidation for some of our student pilots competing in the Junior Landings and Circuits because most had never flown crosswind circuits before so they were getting a lesson at the same time as competing against each other. The winds had caught out several of us PPLs and even some of the professionals were finding it tough going. Little did I know what was in store for me on Sunday.
Sunday came and the weather was vastly improved, instead of the cloud being scattered at 1200’ we had few at around 3000 and the odd shower cloud passing by. The wind had resolutely stayed blowing from west to east and the grass runway had improved enough for limited operations, but the landing grid was going to remain on 18R, so the competitors were faced with the daunting task of performing a glide approach with a crosswind landing. Earlier in the day the wind was fairly slight so there was not more than a 5 knot crosswind blowing, but as the day got warmer the wind increased and by the time I had my turn it was blowing 15 knots with 20 knot gusts from 240 degrees.
The forced landing competition is as follows. Climb to 2500’ AMSL, “fail” the engine, and perform a forced landing onto the grid. Then power up, climb to 1500 AMSL, “fail” the engine again and perform a glide approach from there. The competitor must declare a clean glide speed, a partial flap glide speed, a full flap glide speed, a threshold glide speed and a minimum glide speed. I chose the standard 65 knot clean glide, 60 knot for all flap settings, 55 for the threshold and 50 for the minimum. Up at 2500 it was quite smooth, but as we descended we hit the sheer zone and things got pretty bumpy. I missed the 1500 foot area and cut in towards my 1000 foot point, which I ended up cutting inside because the changing winds were causing a lot of sink when they eased. On the base leg I thought I would cut in slightly because my groundspeed dropped away. I turned final with what I thought was enough altitude to make the grid but down we came so I had no choice but to go around.
On the climb back to 1500 air judge Luigi suggested I carry more airspeed, I concurred so added 5 knots to all my previous airspeeds. The 172 definitely flew better with the faster speed but I found myself sinking rapidly again so I cut inside my base leg even more. I turned final at around 300 feet AGL and I would not have been more than 300 meters from the markers, I selected full flap and lowered the nose to maintain my airspeed. At that precise moment we dropped like a stone. I remember that my eyes were inside because I was checking my airspeed when I heard Air-Judge Luigi say “power power power!” I think I glanced up at the same time I pushed the throttle all the way in and we were coming down hard. Even pushing the throttle home quickly, the engine will take about a good second to come to full power and then there is another second or so for the propeller to start producing maximum thrust. It was in between those seconds that we hit the ground on our right main gear and bounced back into the air. The observers from the grid said later it looked pretty nasty, I must admit it didn’t feel that bad from inside the plane, but later after hearing the eye witness accounts I gave a silent prayer thanking Cessna for using sprung steel for their undercarriage. Had we been in a Cherokee things might have turned out different. We came around and landed on Grass 25 without further incident.
Later on in the day, the busy schedule cleared enough for us to begin the liferaft dropping competition. The liferaft drop is my favourite competition probably because it’s the only team competition we do. I thought I had talked about exactly what is entailed in the liferaft drop competition but looking through my previous posts I cannot find a description so here it is. A pilot and a helper (along with the air-judge) get into an aircraft (in this case a 172 with the pilots door removed) with two “liferafts”. While these are not strictly liferafts, they come in the form of a vinyl bag of similar dimensions and weight to a small punching bag which simulate a deflated liferaft. Prior to departure the pilot nominates the speed at which the drop will take place to the air-judge. After takeoff the pilot climbs to 500’AGL and flies a normal circuit except at low level. The pilot and helper are judged on the teamwork factor as well, and I briefed three calls with my helper. On late downwind, I could call “ready”, at which time the helper grabs a bag and places it on their lap. After turning on final the pilot descends to no less than 200’ AGL and stabilizes their airspeed to their nominated airspeed. When I was about 20 seconds from the drop I called the second call “standby”, where my helper places the liferaft outside the open door of the plane ready for the final command which is given when I think I am over the target, “drop!”
The target grid is kind of like an upside down keyhole. The place to score the best points is in fact not in the circular part of the keyhole, but where the narrowest part is. In a real life situation, the circular part of the keyhole is where the people you are trying to save are floating, so dropping 12kg of vinyl on their heads is not such a great idea. The trick is to drop it close enough so they can swim to it easily but not close enough to cause harm or distress.
Bombing on the other hand, is purely a solo effort. I was the last competitor of the day, and by the time we got airborne it was fairly late and the winter sun was low on the horizon. Unlike liferaft dropping, you get three passes instead of two and the target is a big archery style target with the bullseye in the middle and the concentric rings around it. I made my first pass, and all was going well until I struggled with the window latch in WAM and dropped a bit later than I intended. I pushed in full power to climb away and the window flung outwards, so I had to fly it right handed in a climbing turn slightly out of trim while I struggled to close the window. In hindsight I can see where experience counts, because I didn’t let it distract me from flying the plane whereas had I been pre-PPL I would have had to ask the air-judge to take over for me while I closed the window. By the time we lined up on our second pass I could clearly see the runway lights on the perpendicular runway 18L shining through the now twilight sky. Air judge Peter said that we’d better make this pass the last one. I concurred but when he said I wouldn’t be marked down for only flying two passes I said, “how about I drop two bombs on this pass?” He chuckled and handed me the third bomb, and at the moment I thought was right I threw both of them out the window. We climbed into a right hand turn to join right base for 18R and was cleared almost immediately to land because there was an ATR on an 8 mile final.
I did a passable crosswind landing and we taxied back to the Aero Club where everyone was packing up. Talking to some of the longer serving members of the club they were quite impressed with the turnout this year, they said its the highest it has been for a long time. We even saw some members of the club who are no longer living in Hamilton turn up and try their hand, that was great to see indeed.
Who won? Well that will be announced at the annual Aero Club dinner which is due to be held in September. I don’t hold much hope for victory but the experiences alone were worth the effort.
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