Saturday, June 27, 2009

It's been a hard day's night flying session

Remember how I said in my previous post that I loved the idea of flying at night on weekdays because it freed me from having to take time off work or planning my week-ends around flying lessons? Well, I just came across a huge downside of this nice little theory: after a full day at work, it is very, very hard to empty your mind, restore energy levels and focus on the flying. As a result, my first night flying lesson was very, very messy and I was quite upset with that.

I met my instructor Ben in the clubhouse and we started with a quick whiteboard briefing about taxiway and runway lighting and how night circuits are flown differently from daytime circuits.

Because I had forgotten my torchlight at home, I had to borrow Ben's for preflighting the aircraft. The pre-flight visit is essentially the same as in daylight, with the addition of landing and navigation lights. I noticed that the landing light was not working. That's the light right at the front of the aircraft, below the engine air intake, the one that's used for lighting up the runway on take-off and landing at night. Can't really go without it at night. Ben said we could use the other landing light instead, the one situated near the middle of the leading edge of the right wing. Problem solved.

The aircraft on that night was VH-IJK, the oldest Warrior in the club's fleet. It could definitely do with a new interior trim, but that didn't bother me much in the dark. Before startup, Ben showed me how to use the panel lighting. Unfortunately, the row of switches is not lit up, and I had to be extra careful not to switch the electrical master off when going for the fuel pump switch.

We taxied to 11C and Ben reminded me to perform taxi checks when turning. Keeping the nose wheel on the taxiway centerline was quite hard because the light was coming from the side and not all yellow taxi lines at Bankstown have green lights down the middle. Ben explained that one common mistake is to taxi too fast at night because the pilot has less cues in his field of vision for gauging speed. The trick is to look in the general direction of the wingtip to get a better idea of how fast we are going.

The circuit was already full, with five or six aircraft practicing night circuits. The tower told us to expect a delay and that we would not be cleared before an airplane currently in the circuit makes a full-stop landing. We shut down everything and agreed with the tower controller that he would shine a torchlight at us when he wanted us to start up and talk to him again. The light eventually came and we lined up for a session of about 7 or 8 circuits.

Maintaining the runway centerline on take-off is hard without a front landing light, so I concentrated instead on keeping the picture drawn by the runway side lights and the distant threshold symmetrical while accelerating to take-off speed. The upwind section of the climb is done on instruments up to 500 feet. Wings level, maintain best rate of climb speed with the airspeed indicator and maintain runway heading with the DG. And keep that instrument scan going.

On crosswind when the opposite threshold is about 45 degrees behind us I turn downwind, make my downwind call, BUMFHH checks and try to maintain the runway about one third of the way down from the wingtip. Same story with the other threshold before turning base. Ben explained that the trick for knowing when to turn final is to watch for when the first runway side light on the near side aligns with the third light on the far side. This worked quite well, but I always ended up too high on final. Ben identified the source of the problem as me not flying a square base, but rather having the base leg point toward the threshold, thereby giving myself less time for descending.

A few times when I ended up too high on the glideslope I managed to recapture the correct approach profile (2 red lights and 2 white lights on the PAPI), only to go too high again on late final. Ben insisted that I do not push the nose down below 300 feet to recapture the perfect glideslope otherwise I'll end up touching nose wheel first: if it's too high, just accept it and fly it. 300 feet is also the magical number for the altitude where I more often than not forgot to turn carby heat off. Not good.

On one circuit Ben asked the tower to switch the PAPI lights off, which lead to a good landing actually. Flare and touchdown require a bit of a leap of faith at night though. We tried without the landing light, which worked well too. Having the lights off forces the pilot to concentrate on the picture of the whole runway rather than the beam of light from the landing light.

On one circuit we had a rescue helicopter join the circuit on final from Prospect when we were on downwind. That's because, as per the ERSA, helicopters at Bankstown must use fixed-wing procedures at night. The tower advised us of possible wake turbulence and I extended downwind to allow more time for the turbulence to dissipate. Not that it helped anyway. I was on short final when the aircraft suddenly rolled to the left. Very similar story to what happened to Chris recently. Right rudder, full power and we went around. I forgot to retract the flaps though and it took me an embarrassingly long amount of time to find out why I wasn't climbing as well as in the previous circuits. That and leaving carby heat on are really the kind of beginner's mistakes that make me very upset with myself. Power up, nose up, clean up and speak up. It's not that hard.

Because of our late start we were alone in the circuit when the tower shut down and the control zone reverted to a CTAF. We did one more circuit and taxied back to the club house. We had a debrief where we went through the list of things that could have been done better. Ben gave me a copy of the Night Rating syllabus so that I know what's coming up. We booked two circuits sessions for next week, any one of which can be converted to a simulator session should the weather be less than ideal.


Dave Earl said...

What does BUMFHH stand for? I get maybe undercarriage and fuel, but the rest eludes me... lol

Julien said...

Brakes - Undercarriage - Mixture - Fuel - Hatches - Harness. Different countries and even different instructors have different mnemonics for it, but essentially these are the pre-landing checks, typically performed on downwind when in the circuit.