Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Alone in the dark

I was driving to the airport from work for my first night solo when rain started to fall. Great. Just what I needed, a wet runway and the likelihood of reduced visibility in the circuit. Or even no night solo at all if Dan estimated it was not safe enough for me to go.

I preflighted the airplane under the rain. It took me a while to understand that the navigation lights on that airplane are activated by the panel lights switch, as opposed to having a dedicated switch like on other airplanes. The landing light had been fixed since the first time I flew the airplane, so I wouldn't have to rely on the wing-mounted light this time. Good. The ground was soaked with water which made it difficult to check the flap hinges or the fuel drains without covering myself in mud.

I went out for three circuits with Dan, the Deputy Chief Flying Instructor, so that he could check that I actually knew what I was doing before signing me out for solo at night. We taxied to 11C, did two normal circuits, one go-around, one normal circuit with no landing light and one full-stop behind a rescue helicopter.

On my first circuit I ended up too high on final so I decided to perform a sideslip to loose altitude without gaining airspeed. "Do you know you're sideslipping?" asked Dan. Yes I answered. I guess I should have verbalised the manoeuvre instead of letting him believe I had developed a habit of unwittingly flying with crossed controls.

Dan explained that sideslips should be avoided at night since judging height is harder than in daytime. Better work on fixing the problem of being high on final rather than on the unsafe solution required to recapture the correct descent profile. 1500 rpm when turning base is the magical number said Dan if I want to be at 500 feet when turning final. Of course this all assumes I fly circuits of correct dimensions, i.e. one minute for each of the last two legs.

Dan said he was happy with me going solo for another hour of circuits. He added that if the airplane started to skid on the wet runway on landing I should apply full power and take-off immediately rather than trying to control the airplane on the ground.

Dan jumped out of the airplane and I taxied back to the run-up bay and then to 11C for ten more circuits. VH-SFA and VH-SFR were the other two aircraft in the circuit, with Dan in one and Ben in the other. So I had two pairs of instructor eyes looking after me. Nice of them to not leave me alone in the dark.

The clouds had cleared a bit by now, and the full moon had risen to the east. On downwind the full moon lit up the entire panel. Having only one person on board allows the 160 hp Warrior to climb and accelerate a lot better. At some point after a touch-and-go I even found myself catching up with a 152 in front so requested and obtained an extended upwind leg for spacing.

The rule when night flying though is to spend the entire upwind leg on instruments and not look outside below 500ft, when ready to turn crosswind. I find that difficult with an aircraft in front of me in the circuit, both because the anti-collision light of the preceding aircraft appear in my peripheral field of vision, right above the dashboard, and also because I want to positively maintain separation, not just rely on ATC spacing aircraft correctly in the circuit. As a matter of fact, in GAAP control zones ATC do not provide separation, the responsibility for avoiding collisions rests entirely with the pilots.

On one circuit I learned a valuable lesson. I had just turned final and the preceding aircraft was on short final. It looked like it was too much to the right so I kept an eye on him to see how he was landing. This distracted me from my scan, and when I next looked at the PAPI lights I saw 4 red lights! I got a bit scared since I didn't how far below the glideslope I was and in addition I remembered there's a line of tall trees in the area. More power, back up to the glideslope.

I landed a few minutes before the tower closed and taxied back to the club house. We spent a bit of time going through all the paperwork required and putting a new stamp in my logbook that says I am competent to fly solo at night in PA28 aircraft at night according to the requirements of CAR 5.01A.

It was starting to get a bit late and I was hungry so I said thank you and good bye to Dan and Ben and walked back to my car. I had not turned round the corner of the airport when rain started to fall again. I made a special mental note that I was lucky with weather this time, so that I won't get too upset next time weather Karma does not go my way.


Kevin said...

Hey Julien, just a small correction, but the term side slip is typically associated with that used to correct for a crosswind while a forward slip is used to lose excess altitude. http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slip_(aerodynamic)
Great write up by the way. I always enjoy reading about lessons learned by others. Check out my blog http://takingflightetc.blogspot.com.

Julien said...

Thanks Kevin for the correction, indeed it was a forward slip and not a sideslip. Or at least that was the intention :-)

There's a good discussion here about the different types of slips. Sometimes I feel like some things in aviation are over-theorised, but he makes a couple of good points, especially about using ailerons before rudder when entering a slip.

Kevin said...

Hey Julien, I really enjoyed the website you sent me. I tried to find, in this article, an explanation for why you use aileron before rudder. I am using the iPhone to read this so i might have inadvertently skimmed over it. I may ask my cfi to see if he might know and get back to you with his explanation

Kevin said...

Hey julien, I enjoyed the link you sent. However, I can't find where he discusses why we use aileron before rudder when entering a slip. I am using my iPhone to read this so I might be skimming over it by accident.

Julien said...

You're right, I can't find it on that Web page either. God, I am really in need of holidays :-)

Kevin said...

You and me both. That is how I was taught though. Aileron first, rudder second. I will ask my cfi