Fly by Night: Part 2
Be sure to read Fly by Night: Part 1 first! This article was originally published in Piper Flyer Magazine.
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. The key is to snatch a window in the late spring or early fall and hope for clear skies. November in England isn’t known for its clear starry nights, although with sunset before dinner it meant I should get a decent amount of flying each clear evening.
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 and 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. The TB10 bounced right back up, it wanted to fly, more than any other plane I’ve been in.
Eventually I got the hang of both the plane and the viewpoint and we landed. The last thing on radio was the ATC controller: 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, cities miles away suddenly 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. We couldn’t locate fields for landing on, we couldn’t see power cables, the chances of landing safely were minimal.
We turned back towards Oxford, Albert slightly 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 answer from the controller who was waiting for us. The runway lights turned off behind us as we landed, 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 said, “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 was relieved that I’d seen Ben briefly at the airfield that afternoon, so I knew he was OK. I had no idea there were cables there at all.
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 wires fifty feet above the ground and didn’t turn into a flaming fireball of death. I also liked 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 License, and 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.