Fly By Night

Part One of Two – originally published in Piper Flyer

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 different. This isn’t an issue during the day, I look out at cities and farmland and lakes and railway lines: they are real. At night it all changes: the twinkly lights that almost mirror a desert night sky have 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 lit world of 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 perhaps 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 of which 20 hours must be as Pilot in Command and 10 of those hours must be post-qualification. It’s not a particularly onerous requirement but they do wish you to be comfortable with basic flying before learning a new viewpoint.

I had just reached 100 hours as Pilot of Command so this was hardly an issue. However, 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 didn’t want to do this. The amount of theory was intimidating and I didn’t like to think about 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. Realistically I knew that anything with that much studying and testing and hours and exams couldn’t possibly be as simple as being told how to fly but I couldn’t help but be wary of the idea. 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 an auto-pilot, a refresher was definitely in order. I decided I would get the rating.

I did what preparation I could: I spent some time reading up on instrument flying and 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. A simple route that I flew often as a passenger and fairly regularly as a pilot already looked completely cold and foreign. My map felt useless – why 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.

[…]

Part 2

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