Fly by Night

30 May 14 3 Comments

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.

Category: PE,


  • Many years of flying cargo at night. Thousands of hours in Shorts Skyvan, Shorts 3-60, Metroliner, Fokker F27 and Fairchild FH 227. And of course flying passengers does not stop at nightfall either. So add some hours more on Cessna twins, Citations of various models from 500, 550 to 650 and Stallion, Learjet 25, Aerospatiale Corvette. And scheduled passenger services on ATR 42, Fokker 50 and BAC 1-11. It nearly made flying during daylight hours seem strange.
    But Sylvia’s article made my first night flights on light singles come back to memory.
    The very first one was in a Cherokee at Lagos, Nigeria. After a few circuits the instructor allowed me to go solo. During the second round in the pattern, the clouds suddenly increased. I barely made it back to the runway.
    Flying VFR by night is more difficult than one would think. The perspective seems changed which makes everything look very different. Maybe because our eyes are using different receptors – what was that again ? rods and something else ? I forgot.
    Then, as in the part about the incident: obstructions like cables may well have become invisible. In some European countries therefore all night flying is subject to IFR and unlike in the UK, often all IFR flights must be conducted in controlled airspace.
    Once, I was sent to pick up a Piper Super Cub from the (now closed) Muenchen Riem airport where it had been in maintenance. I had to ferry it to a small, local aerodrome nearby called Jesenwang. Hidden between woodland and with a public road crossing the threshold. If an aircraft would be landing, the airport manager would turn on an amber rotating beacon at the road to warn vehicles.
    The engineers were not quite ready when I arrived and when the PA 18 was released, I had no more than about 25 minutes daylight left.
    The flying time would be about 20 minutes so, to the relief of the mechanics, I taxied out and they closed the doors and went home.
    But Munich was a major airport and I had to wait a long time before there was a gap between the large commercial aircraft with sufficient time to allow for wake turbulence.
    So with just mere minutes before sunset I took off. The Super Cub had a radio, a liquid compass, altimeter, airspeed indicator and engine instruments. It also had navigation lights.
    But that was just about it.
    Soon it was pitch dark.
    The people at Jesenwang thought that I was not coming. A phone call to the mechanics went unanswered – they were long gone.
    I was lucky that someone, just when he was about to close the hanger doors, heard the sound of a light aircraft. He pulled the last aircraft, a Cessna 172, back out, started the engine, swung it facing the runway and turned on the landing lights. Next, someone turned on the rotating beacon at the junction of the road and the threshold of the runway.
    To my relief, I suddenly had just enough references to find the aerodrome and landed safely.
    In those days one still could get away with many things. Different times !

  • The things we do when we are young and think we are invincible!
    I had a newly minted instrument rating when we decided to rent an aircraft and fly to Dublin for Christmas. At the time, we were living in the Netherlands, the parents-in-law in Ireland.
    Most flying schools required a minimum number of hours if one took a plane for a longer period.
    But in winter time, usage would be less so a flying club was happy enough to allow us to use a Cessna 172 with long-range tanks.
    So we set off. If I think of it now I realise that we were naive, stupid.And then some. But we went. Across the North Sea and the Irish Sea. Single-engine, IFR. Non-stop.
    A friend, a helicopter pilot with the Dutch air force, insisted to give us a loan of an inflatable life raft, just “to be sure to be sure”.
    All went well. We landed at Dublin Airport and spent the Christmas with the family.
    I decided to take some friends for a little “spin”. Nowadays it is nearly impossible to operate out of a major airport without a handling agent, but 40 years ago things were different.
    We filed a flight plan for a local IFR training flight. Had to because the weather was very definitely IMC with a reported cloud base just over 200 feet.
    We took off and in the climb to a safe altitude I decided to check the carburettor heat. After all, it was winter and we were very much in the clouds.
    I pulled the knob and it came out easily. Far too easy and too far. Pulled a bit more and the whole cable was revealed. The clamp holding it attached to the bracket at the carburettor had become loose. I had no carburettor heat.
    The only solution was to declare an emergency and fly the entire rest on full power. I can not remember any more how fast a 172 will fly down the ILS on full power, but the flare took more than half the runway.
    In those days there was an FBO based at Dublin, called Iona National Airways. They were the local Cessna reps and had the cable fixed very quickly.
    A few days later we went back to Amsterdam.
    Again: IFR, non-stop. At night.
    The weather was glorious, a clear sky. We could see for miles and miles from our cruising altitude, FL 090 (unlike the USA, once above a safe altitude and once passed through “transition height” one changes to 1013 or 29.92. On the way down, the altimeter is re-set to QNH or QFE when passing “transition level”.
    About halfway across the North Sea, however, ATC informed us that the visibility at Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam, was dropping rapidly.
    We asked for a diversion to a British airport and were told that dense fog was developing all over the UK. So we continued.
    When we approached the Dutch coast, Schiphol reported less than 500 metres with some RVR’s less and dropping.
    Our alternate, Rotterdam, was worse. So was Brussels. The next option was Dusseldorf in Germany. At the end of our range, with visibility dropping there as well and all airliners diverting there. Things started to look a bit “dodgy” for us.
    In those days there was – with the exception of the UK – no “approach ban”, at least not for private aircraft, if the visibility was below minima. So we decided we had just run out of options and joined the ILS for 19R.
    Cloud base was no longer reported, visibility less than 200 metres.
    Eventually, at 50 feet or so, I saw a glow of white light below us in the fog. The LLZ was still dead centre, the GS started to drop. I realized we were over the touch-down zone lights and gently eased the aircraft onto the runway.
    It was impossible to taxi, I could not even see the runway edge lights.
    Eventually a “follow-me” was dispatched to guide us to the apron. The marshaller told us that he had to ask ground radar for directions and when he was told to guide an aircraft from the runway he was expecting a large, cat 2 (new in those days) equipped airliner.
    He had problems locating the airplane, to his utter surprise a tiny Cessna 172 !
    Those were the days, my friend. We thought they’d never end ! We’d sing and dance, forever and a day.

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