Lee Tower has informed me that there is another plane in the circuit on its downwind leg. I give the base and final legs a good scan and I can see no one is there. I open the throttle and the PA-28 I’m sat in slowly trundles out onto runway two-three. I’m flying in G-BOHA – my favourite of Phoenix Aviation’s small fleet of Piper Warriors. Sat on my right is my flight instructor and in the back is my Dad – who is also learning to fly. I position Hotel Alpha onto the centre line and I roll over the big numbers two-three at the end of the runway. Happy with my positioning I take a deep breath and push forward the small black throttle.
The engine roars, the plane vibrates and the tyres rumble over concrete and we’re moving. The speed begins to tick along. Ten, twenty, thirty, forty knots. I give the rudder a quick kick to keep myself on the centreline. Another glance at the speed I’m at fifty-five knots; I pull the yoke back and the plane responds, laboriously at first. I can hear my instructor in my ear: “It will fly!”. He isn’t wrong. In seconds we are up in the air.
Up, up and away: the hangars outside shrink; the planes turn to miniature and ground is falling away. I make some corrections to the plane and peer over the cowling to make sure I am flying along the runway. On either side there are flats and houses that don’t appreciate being buzzed early on a Saturday morning – that’s a quick and easy route to an angry noise complaint. Soon I am crossing the beach and over the Solent. Now I am aloft I am climbing through two hundred feet and I have trimmed myself to climb at eighty knots. I do a quick after take-off check: flaps are up; engine temperature and pressures are green; carb heat is off. Another look at my altimeter and I am almost at four hundred feet.
At five hundred feet I turn to the crosswind leg. But before turning I survey the sky. To my left I can see Portsmouth Harbour and the sun rising above it, the solent forts are black smudges on the sea. Through the whirring propeller I see the Isle of Wight, Cowes is shrouded in an early morning mist but the green hills are rising above it. To my right I can see clouds forming from the tip of the chimney at Fawley power station. Beyond that and through a light haze Southampton and its harbour sprawls out into the distance. And above all of this there isn’t another plane in the sky. I begin a smooth climbing turn to my right.
As I fly along Lee-On-Solent and Hill Head beaches my height closes in on one thousand feet. At nine hundred and fifty feet I make preparations to bring the plane level: I push the nose forward and watch the vertical speed bleed to zero; my airspeed rises to one hundred and ten knots and I throttle back to two thousand four hundred RPM; I trim to maintain my pitch and speed. Damn! I over shot one thousand feet by another fifty! It’s not the end of the world, but I need to get better at that.
Below me and to the right is the mouth of the River Meon. Marked by a harbour and a small navy of boats the river thins and stretches into the distance. Alongside the river and a bit further inland sits a small triangular forest of trees; a helpful landmark; I rotate the plane and fly towards it. Now I’m flying parallel to the runway and skirting Stubbington village – if I get too close that’s another easy way to get a noise complaint. With the wind behind me things start to happen quickly.
In seconds I am abeam of the numbers zero-five on the runway and I make a call to Lee Radio: “Golf Hotel Alpha, downwind” an instant later I hear back “Golf Hotel Alpha, Roger”. After the brief exchange I am now a quarter of the way down the runway and I need to get on with my downwind checks.
The downwind checks can be shortened to this very memorable acronym: BUMFICHH. I was being sarcastic, but it does actually roll off the tongue. So, I start working my way through my checks: Brakes, off; Undercarriage, down; Mixture, rich; Fuel, both tanks look similar so we’re good here; Instruments, engine temperatures and pressures are good; Carb Heat, hot for 5 seconds; Harnesses, everyone is strapped in tightly; Hatches, all closed and locked. In no time I am above a group of green houses used as a turning landmark. After a sweep of the skies to check for traffic I turn my plane and point towards the Spinnaker tower in Portsmouth Harbour.
Now time is even more precious and I need to start on the landing configuration: Carb Heat to hot; RPM down to fifteen hundred RPM; two stages of flap; I wait for the speed to fall to seventy-five knots and drop the nose whilst maintaining the speed. Very quickly I fall through nine hundred, eight hundred and then seven hundred feet. I roll the yoke to the right and turn over the solar farm and the light dances over each panel below us. As I’m turning I make a call on the radio: “Golf Hotel Alpha, final for touch and go”. Almost instantly I hear “Golf Hotel Alpha, final for touch and go surface wind seven knots at two three zero” and I acknowledge the message “Golf Hotel Alpha”.
I’m lined up with the runway but a bit too high. I bring down the third, and final, stage of flaps and I increase my rate of descent. Keeping at seventy-five knots. I seem to be getting a bit low now so I give the throttle a quick push and the plane rises a tad. I cross the road joining Stubbington and Peel Common passing over cars below. I can’t count the number of times I have walked along that road with my Dad and watched the planes fly over us, now we’re the people in those planes and it makes me excited.
I’ve crossed the boundary to the airfield and over the big clump of bushes. I’m high enough to make it to the runway without any throttle so I cut it and glide the final distance across the threshold and the big twenty-three.
This is is the tricky part, as I descend to twenty feet I’m supposed to bring the nose up and fly along the runway and gracefully touch down on my main wheels and then bring the front nose down. What happens next doesn’t quite match that. I misjudge twenty feet by about fifteen feet and carry on down the runway whilst nosing up. My speed is disappearing but my height not so much. The stall warning kicks in and starts to whine away, next thing I know I am down with a thud. Still counts! Once again I’m trundling along the runway. With a kick of rudder I put myself back on the centre line, retract the flaps and push the throttle to open and around I go again.