I’m back from California (I didn’t win) and still trying to get into the swing of things, let alone sleeping on the right timezone. So for this week, here’s a piece I wrote some years ago. A version of this piece was published in Piper Flyer.
Fly by Night
Flying feels different in the dark.
Sitting in a commercial plane, looking at the black outside the window, the viewpoint strikes me as so completely alien. During the day, I look out at cities and farmland and lakes and railway lines: they are real, they look normal. At night, it all changes: the twinkly lights almost mirror a desert night sky. There’s a sheen of unreality, an otherworldliness. It is harder to imagine the commuter and the tractor and the holiday makers and the train engineers when I look down at the lights below. The dimply-lit air conditioned world inside the jet is a distinct place, a separate world suspended between ground and sky. As I sip my gin and tonic, I imagine we are in orbit rather than just flying from Luton to Málaga on the late night flight.
Or maybe I shouldn’t read science fiction novels while I wait for boarding to start.
The first time Cliff flew the Saratoga at night I was at home, pacing. I was a wreck. Would he find the airport? If he accidentally flew out to sea, how would he notice? What if he flew into a mountain? How can you tell the difference between the black of the mountain and the black of the sea, anyway? It seemed terribly dangerous, flying at night.
It wasn’t until he got his IFR licence that I relaxed … until the day came which my regular readers will already have anticipated: he asked me why I didn’t go and get my night rating as well.
In the UK, if you wish to fly at night you have to have a separate rating. Unlike the US, the training for the Private Pilot Licence carries no requirement at all for flying on instruments. You can’t complete a night rating as a part of your PPL: first you must have a minimum of 50 flying hours. 20 of those hours must be as Pilot in Command and 10 must be post-qualification. It’s not a particularly onerous requirement. They simply wish you to be comfortable with basic flying before learning a new viewpoint.
I had just reached 100 hours as Pilot of Command so my hours was not an issue. Getting the night rating wasn’t a priority for me: my home airfield of Málaga doesn’t allow VFR at night. Most of my flying is in the summer and the UK is far enough north that even South East England has sunsets around 9pm, long after I’ve left the airfield and gone out for a beer.
I had considered doing some instrument training but at a very basic level, I was resisting actually doing it. The amount of theory was intimidating. I didn’t like the idea of trying to land with a hood on. Also, flying by instruments felt a bit like cheating, looking inside instead of out, relying on machines to tell me what to do. I was afraid it might be difficult to tell the difference between the cockpit and Microsoft Flight Simulator. And my biggest fear: If I knew the plane could fly better than me, then why was I flying at all? It seemed better to avoid the existential questions along with the instrument rating.
On the other hand, I had pushed a lot of limits recently and it seemed time to move onto the next step. The night rating doesn’t need a heavy time/training commitment and could come in useful at some point. Flying with an instructor again would also catch some of the lazy habits I had no doubt fallen into. I had recently been made uncomfortably aware of how difficult I found it to fly the plane without relying on the auto-pilot, so a refresher was definitely in order. I decided I would get the rating.
I started with home study. Well, I watched out the window on late-night British Airways flights to Málaga, trying to identify the runway from the distance. This isn’t particularly a challenge: the runway is perpendicular to the coast and all 10,500 metres of it is surrounded by bright lights. Honestly, if you can’t find Málaga airfield at night, you may as well throw in the towel right now.
But it was interesting to think of it as a navigation exercise, trying to recognize the cities along the route that I knew from my own flying in the area, without the ridges and rivers and lakes that I was used to. The simple route that I flew often as a passenger and fairly regularly as a pilot looked completely cold and foreign. My map was useless. Why, I wondered, don’t they do separate night maps, showing the clusters of city lighting and the blackouts of the uninhabited areas, like a light box toy or the maps of the heavens. Approximate blobs for concentrated lights and dotted lines for the highways with the blackest of blacks for the water would make navigation much easier.
Still, fear of the ground hadn’t stopped me yet, this was just ground that I couldn’t see. Perhaps better not to think about that.
A major issue when planning lessons is the timing. The weather in the winter is prohibitive for VFR flying and the sunsets in the main flying months are after the majority of airfields have shut for the day. In July and August, it is light until 9pm, long after the flying instructors have all been tucked into their beds.
November in England isn’t known for its clear starry nights, but with sunset before dinner it meant I should get a decent amount of flying whenever the evening was clear. I got in touch with Albert, a helpful and patient instructor who I had flown with before, and booked five evenings to allow for a couple of nights of cancellations.
Albert chose to train me in a plane he knew well, a darling TB10. I immediately fell in love with the two seater. It was a friendly, light plane that seemed eager to please; not something I’d ever say about the Saratoga!
We started with basic day-time handling and getting used to the plane. Then as the light grew dim we returned to Oxford for circuits. Albert stepped me through exercises meant to help me recognize how close to the ground I was. Watch for the runway lights to look like a string of pearls. When the lights are at shoulder height, flare, gently.
I struggled with the gentle flares. The TB10 bounced right back up, it wanted to fly, more than any other plane I’ve been in. But eventually I got the hang of both the plane and the viewpoint and we landed. The ATC controller watched us taxi to the apron and made one last call: At twenty hundred hours, this airfield is now closed.
As we got out of the plane, everything was dark and silent. Albert pointed his torch around the plane — the chocks, the lock, the cover. We tidied it all up and then he pointed the torch at the ground so we could pick our way to the gate. I felt like a burglar.
The next evening we did navigation, looking out at lights with a map on my lap:
“What’s that up there?” Albert pointed out.
“Er, Oxford? No, no, give me a second. Banbury?”
“Yep, what’s that road up there then?”
It was a solid stripe of light and had to be a major freeway. “Um, the M4?”
“Correct again. Follow it.”
“OK.” I lined the plane up with the pretty twinkly red lights of stationary traffic and hoped that Albert wouldn’t make me turn off onto a roundabout.
My perspective of distance was totally out as cities which were miles away suddenly became visible from low level as a glow of light. I learned to forget about rivers and railway lines and watch for roads instead. I scanned all around me, watching for black-outs: cloud or worse, a mountain. Albert stepped me through an engine failure but admitted that it was more for form. If the engine failed, we needed to land. But there was no way to locate safe fields for landing on and it would be impossible to see the power cables. The chances of landing safely, he told me, were minimal.
We turned back towards Oxford. Albert was nervous about going too far afield as the airfield was specifically staying open for us. He told the story of another instructor who returned back to the airfield to find that the air traffic controller had forgotten about the night flight and simply shut down and gone home. It was with relief that I heard the cheerful response from Oxford. He was waiting for us, no problem. Albert talked me through the landing. As we turned off the runway, the lights turned off behind us. It felt so final.
The third night I was doing a flapless landing in the dark, looking for my string of pearls, only half watching the PAPI.
“Two reds, that’s right. Don’t get too low. I mean it, Sylvia! Don’t lose that height.” There was an edge to Albert’s voice that was out of character. I did the touch and go and when we were back on downwind he took a deep breath. “Ben had some trouble here. I’ll tell you on the ground. Just remember to maintain that height.”
I met Albert through a very competent instructor named Ben. Ben got a job flying a Citation and although he was still doing a bit of teaching on the side, his schedule and mine rarely meshed so I didn’t see much of him. He’s one of those instructors that makes me want to fly better than I do: he’s good with the plane, patient with the training, and likes to have a laugh.
Once we were on the ground, Albert told me about Ben’s last training flight.
“He was doing night flying, like this, and somehow they ended up a low on the approach. Flew straight into cables, right where you were dipping low.” I shook my head in disbelief. I’d seen Ben briefly at the airfield that afternoon. I had no idea there were cables on the approach at all; I could have flown straight into them. I found it hard to believe that Ben had.
From the accident report:
An aircraft ahead in the circuit caused the trainee to extend the downwind leg before turning onto base leg and commencing the approach. The instructor stated that when the aircraft was approximately 400 meters from the threshold, he became aware of some power cables ahead which the aircraft then struck in the area of the nose-wheel. The instructor immediately took control of the aircraft and commenced a go-around whilst declaring a “mayday” to ATC.
After conducting a handling check overhead the airfield to check for normal control response and handling qualities, the instructor flew a circuit and low go-around to allow the AFRS an attempt at visually inspecting the aircraft using spotlights. They could not see any damage and the instructor rejoined the circuit. He then briefed the trainee for an emergency landing before commencing a final approach to the runway.
They landed just fine, despite damage to the nose landing gear and the wing. It sounds terrible, but I’m always cheered to hear success stories like this: proof of the resilience both of pilots and planes. The plane flew straight into power cables fifty feet above the ground and didn’t turn into a flaming fireball of death. I was also amused at the dryness of “became aware of some power cables,” as if it were comparable to becoming aware that it’s lunchtime.
It was a few weeks later when I ran into Tom, the man I blame for tricking me into doing my Private Pilot’s Licence. We were talking about what made for good instruction. I mentioned instructors I’d flown with, including Ben.
“I don’t know him,” said Tom.
“He’s a good guy. I met him through Louise.”
“Yeah… I’ve heard of him, I think. I think he’s the guy who wrote off my plane on a night training.”
Ah, er, yes. That would be him. A change of subject might be in order.
Meanwhile, back in Oxford, I flew in the dark for one further evening, finishing my five take-off and landings. Oxford insist on full-stop landings at night which made this a time intensive process as the TB10 put-putted its way around the airfield to take off once more. Albert stayed on the ground, watching me from the warmth of the control tower. As I finished the fifth landing, I was struck again by the eery solitude of the airfield at night, the lights turned off. I used the torch to lock down the plane and then made my way to the parking lot where Albert was waiting to sign my log book.
The night breeze was icy, snow was forecast for the following evening. We had finished just in time but it was done: I had my night rating and I can now fly on instruments … but only if it’s dark.