My last session of night circuits was much, much better than the previous one. Ben said he is now ready to send me solo at night, which will happen as soon as my schedule and the weather conditions agree. So all the beating myself up and rehearsing circuit procedures in my head and on paper paid off.
This time I was prepared. I had eaten a triple cheeseburger on the way to Bankstown. For some reason whenever I go flying I feel excused for eating junk food. I was hydrated but not too much. I had my own torchlight and the pre-flight visit didn't reveal any nasty surprise. Earlier in the day the wind was blowing at 15 knots gusting to 25, but as night fell so did the wind, down to a more manageable 8 knots. There was a catch though: the forecast called for moderate to severe turbulence below 5000ft, which combined with the crosswind made for a few challenging final legs.
The aircraft that night was VH-SFK, still a Warrior but much better equipped than IJK which I flew the time before. As you can see on the photo above, the row of switches actually lights up on this aircraft. The Garmin 430 automatically dims the display at night. Ben showed me the settings page where the display brightness can be adjusted. If you look back at the photos taken on my very first night flight, you can tell the GPS display was still on full bright. The lights of the annunciator panel can also be dimmed.
I flashed the landing light three times as a warning sign for anyone around to stay clear of the aircraft and started the engine after a bit of priming. We taxied for left-hand circuits on 29C. As we approached the main apron two Aero Commander crossed in front of us, following a larger Metroliner, like ducklings lined up behind their mother.
For some unknown reason, we were the only training aircraft in the circuit that evening, in contrast with the time before when we had to wait twenty minutes in the run-up bay before someone left the circuit and the controller allowed us to join the merry-go-round. Maybe the forecasted turbulence discouraged other pilots. Maybe we were just lucky. Maybe there was something good on TV for a change.
We started with two normal circuits to get me back in the saddle. Preparation paid off, I didn't forget anything and the shape of the circuits was acceptable this time. Not great, but acceptable. There was a crosswind from the right on final which I managed to handle reasonably well, even though we drifted a bit far from the centreline on a couple of occasions. I should have put more ailerons in after removing the crab. Landings were a lot harder than the previous time, but my excuse is that that's what one wants with crosswind landings: a long float means the possibility of drifting downwind of the centreline, and flying with crossed control in the flare means more drag.
The crosswind was blowing our downwind leg a bit too far away from the runway, and the moving map on the GPS showed us a bit too close to the edge of the control zone for comfort. The control zone at Bankstown is more or less a circle with a radius of 3 nautical miles, so the correct analogy for circuits there would be a goldfish in his bowl. Ben suggested I do not fly a straight crosswind leg, but rather fly a climbing turn from upwind to downwind, which definitely helped bring us closer to the runway.
Then came lighting failures. Ben turned all the interior lights off. I took my torchlight which I had kept handy, turned it on and stuck it to the side of my headset, right above the earcup gel. It works fantastically well, and the red glow from the torchlight illuminated the whole panel. The added bonus of sticking the torchlight under the headset of course is that the light follows where the pilot is looking.
We did four or five circuits like that. The torchlight didn't move. Ben asked the tower controller to shine at us the green light that would indicate we are cleared to land in the event of a radio failure. On the next circuit the controller showed us the red light for a so-called "tower-initiated go-around". I didn't forget to clean up the aircraft this time. We did an uneventful flapless landing, another normal circuit and then it was time to call it a night.
Back at the clubhouse we looked at the syllabus for Night VFR and realised that I cannot go solo before I have practiced unusual attitude recovery under the hood in daytime. I guess CASA does not like the idea of people practicing spiral dives and approaching the stall in a climbing turn at night.
So on the next Sunday we went out to the training area for practicing unusual attitude recovery. There's only two techniques to remember, depending on whether the nose is pointing up or down, so that wasn't too hard. Nose up, full power, push nose down, wings level. Nose down, power to idle, wings level, pull nose up. And in both cases finish by re-establishing straight and level flying at cruise power.
The good thing on that short 0.7 hour flight is that I spent 0.4 hour under the hood. I put the hood on as we passed 500 ft after take-off. Ben handled the radios and gave me vectors to the training area to perform unusual attitude recovery exercises and later back to Bankstown via Prospect and all the way to late downwind where I took the hood off before landing on 29R.
So I'm now officially ready to go solo at night. I'm just waiting for the planets to align between my availability, that of my instructor and that crap weather we've been having for the last three months. Even though it is obviously not the same as a first solo, this is still very exciting.