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Flying in Circles

"Let's make this one a soft-field," I said to my buddy Tim as I pulled the Cessna's yoke back to the stop and smoothly advanced the throttle. Nosewheel's off. Start feeding the yoke forward—a little too much, back a bit—good. Mains are off. Don't get too high—accelerate in ground effect. There's best-rate-of-climb speed. Start climbing away. Our session in the pattern was going well. "I had a little nose bobble there at the beginning—a little graceless, but not too bad. I give it a 7," I said to Tim as we leveled on downwind and started setting up for landing.

Tim often accompanies me when I'm flying patterns. He's always wanted to be a pilot. When I earn my CFI certificate, he'll probably be my first student. What's stopped him so far? Mainly the cost, something most of us can sympathize with, especially in the current economy. I've been lucky. While I've had to make some concessions to fiscal realities, I'm still flying—just less than I used to. Sometimes several months go by when the only flying I do is in the pattern at my home airport.

Fortunately, I love pattern work. I have more landings than hours in my logbooks. I can practice a little bit of everything in the pattern: climbs, level flight, descents, configuration changes, ground-reference maneuvers, and all kinds of takeoffs and landings: normal, short-field, soft-field, crosswind, power-on, power-off, rough-air, smooth-air. Patterns are great for maintaining proficiency and confidence.

And they're cheap. I'm a member of the Seagull Flying Club in San Jose, California. There are 20 of us and we own two airplanes, a 1973 A36 Bonanza and a 1976 Cessna 172. We keep our costs low by doing a lot of our own maintenance and we use "Gull bucks" (a 1/20 share of costs) to pay for what we can't do in-house. It's a great way to keep flying. This is one of the topics I've been examining as I write Chapter 1 of my book: finding ways to fly that don't break the bank (here's a draft excerpt).

Climbing out from a normal takeoff, I glanced at the one empty field anywhere nearby, just on the other side of the freeway. That's where I'd go if I lost the engine here. "Let's do this landing power-off," I said as we turned downwind. Chop the throttle abeam the numbers and turn base early. Judging from the crab angle there's a little more wind than expected—hold off on the flaps for now. Blip the throttle occasionally to make sure there's power if we need it. Turn final—now add the flaps. Cool—just enough crosswind to play with. Flare it out over the threshold and touch down just past the numbers. "Perfect," Tim said as we rolled out. I smiled and said, "A little too perfect. I'd rather have a little more altitude and slip it if I need to. Should've turned base sooner. Still, it was a solid 8." I was having a blast. What do I like best about pattern work? It's flying! It might be flying in circles within half a mile of home, but it's still flying and it's still fun.

It was dusk when when we did our last takeoff for the night. The enormous silhouette of Moffett Field's Hangar One loomed ahead, just a few miles away. The city lights were coming up now that the sun was down. The late-afternoon winds had abated, so the air was smooth. The surrounding hills were a muted gold against the deepening blue of the sky. "I've said it before and I'll say it again—this is awesome!" said Tim as we cruised downwind, setting up for our last landing. I chuckled and said, "Amen, brother—let's hope we never forget it!"

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