Low and over (Or, learning to land by not landing)

Early in the training – after an introduction to controlling the airplane on the ground, controlling the airplane’s orientation to the horizon (Nose up, nose down, banked left, banked right – its “attitude”),  flying straight and level, climbing, descending, and taking off, I had to learn to land.

Airports have established patterns around runways that airplanes are to fly so that things stay organized. (If you play Flight Control, you know this) In the United States, these patterns are called “patterns.” In Canada, owing to its Commonwealth heritage, this is called a circuit. (Because the pattern looks like a horse-racing track / circuit.)

To land, you typically join the downwind leg (The part of the circuit parallel to the runway), turn base (The leg perpendicular to the runway), and then turn final (The leg where you are lined up with the runway.) On final well – you land the plane.

In the downwind, aircraft fly at circuit altitude, which is usually 1000 feet above the airport elevation, and begin their descent on turning base. This is where my troubles began.

Up until that point, I had flown the airplane about 2700 feet above the ground, practicing manoeuvres high in the sky. Nothing but blue above and the ground reassuringly far below. Even at 1500 feet in the downwind, flying straight, the sky-ground balance seemed OK.

On the descent however, the nose is down. An alarmingly large proportion of the canopy was filled with solid buildings, roads, and ground. Suddenly the ground wasn’t abstract, but a living real thing with apartment windows and moving cars. I would reflexively pull back on the stick. This was a problem. Pulling back slows the airplane down, bringing it closer to the minimum speed to fly, or its stall speed. It’s no good to stall 700 feet above the ground.

To get me get used to flying close to the ground, my instructor called the tower for a “low and over” over runway 32. 32 is one of the main runways at the airport. It’s about 3 kilometers long and it’s what the day-to-day scheduled jet traffic uses.

My instructor told me to simply fly the plane straight and level over the runway a few hundred feet above the ground, to get my eyes used to the idea of seeing so much ground. As we descended to the runway I noticed a white Air Canada jet holding short of runway 32, on the taxiway.

“Ottawa tower – Air Canada XXX holding short 32”
“Air Canada XXX – hold short – Katana doing a low and over 32.”

I was holding up a jetload full of people! Woops. It was awesome and kind of awkward. I hoped no one on the jet was in a terrible hurry and attempted to telepathically seek forgiveness. Plus I get delayed by Air Canada all the time, so maybe it was karma. Still it was no major delay. With some success I kept the plane tracking straight over the runway centreline and was clear of the runway in about 90 seconds.

The low and over was a success and helped me get over my fear of the ground. Haven’t done another low and over since.

But if you’re sitting on the left side of the plane next time you’re holding short of the runway, look outside! You might see another hapless student scooting over the runway. Spare a thought for the student pilot coming to terms with the ground after only a brief introduction to the air.

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