Circle To Land - A Tricky Maneuver
January 7, 2013
- This story and more are available in the January edition of Knowledge Magazine - the Official Safety Magazine of the U.S. Army.
FORT RUCKER, Ala. - Circle-to-land is one of the least practiced and most underappreciated maneuvers in the fixed-wing Army aviation community. In the commercial and civilian sector, the maneuver is considered risky enough that many freight operators prohibit their pilots from performing it at night or from doing it at all. However, depending on the mission, pilots may have no choice but to employ the circle-to-land maneuver. And if the first time you practice it is the first time you need it, you could be in serious trouble. I'll give you a personal example from a flight I had in a C-12.
It was a fair day for instrument flight rules training along the eastern seaboard. The forecast showed scattered clouds at 1,000 feet, a few clouds at 4,000 feet and overcast at 10,000 feet with a front pushing in from the west. We were inbound to Myrtle Beach International Airport and had requested the VOR/DME-A (a navigation aid providing the direction and distance to the runway along with a circle-to-land approach). Before descending from our mission profile altitude of 22,000 feet, the Automated Terminal Information Service at Myrtle Beach confirmed the forecast we'd received earlier on our -1, plus winds from 270 degrees at 40 knots gusting to 55. I realized this ATIS forecast provided a good training opportunity. I could enter the traffic pattern and land on runway 18/36, a north-south runway, choosing to land from either direction. Whichever approach I used, I'd have a crosswind. It was simply a matter of whether I wanted it coming from the right or left side of the aircraft.
As we were handed off from center to Myrtle Beach approach, my pilot reviewed and briefed the airport diagram, instrument procedures and notice to airmen. With runway 18 in use, we both agreed we would enter right-closed traffic (flying only right turns in the pattern) upon crossing the minimum descent altitude of 520 feet. A Trouble T (a warning shown in the notes section of the instrument procedure chart) restricted aircraft from circling east of the runway. After receiving the brief from the pilot not on the controls, approach handed us off to Myrtle Beach tower.
We barely broke out of the weather as I executed the instrument approach. Conditions were much worse than ATIS reported, with broken scud intermittent at 600 and 400 feet. At 12.6 nautical miles, I crossed the centerline on runway 18, as indicated on the approach plate, and turned right to land downwind. But with winds worse than predicted, coupled with precipitation and reduced visibility, I found my scan jumping more and more between my airspeed, instruments and the obstacles outside, which included a new tower and other buildings being erected inside the traffic pattern. There was also a crane located closer to my traffic pattern than I had expected - the NOTAMs didn't lie. I realized as I corrected for the winds that if I flew a wider pattern, I would be in the clouds as well.
With limited visibility flying a tight, modified downwind approach - conditions that didn't permit a standard traffic pattern altitude - we conducted the before-landing check. We got two red and one green on the landing gear check, so we recycled the landing gear to ensure all three wheels were down. We flew a modified nose-low descending turn to final, correcting for obstacles in the pattern and the easterly gusting winds.
While we landed without incident, the flight gave me a great appreciation for the tricky nature of the task. I realized that circle-to-land should be practiced several times a month, initially under ideal conditions as well as in moderate weather. I would never want to get into a situation where I needed to execute a circle-to-land approach without first having plenty of practice. Also, all too often, "Murphy" plays a role by giving us an inaccurate weather forecast, a minor mechanical issue or new obstacle to be avoided while landing at an airfield. The best way to stay out of Murphy's sights is to be practiced and ready with the proper controls. The fact is, when it comes to safety, foresight beats hindsight every time.