Thursday, July 9, 2009

More night circuits and a bit of daylight

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.


Anonymous said...

Hi Julien,

As someone just short of their GFPT I'm still some way from contemplating night flying, but I can't help but wonder what the attraction is... What areas do you think the big black is helping your flying skills.

Julien said...

Thanks Mutley, very good question.

It's difficult to describe how flying at night feels. It's quiet, peaceful and challenging. The nearest thing I can compare it with is driving on an empty highway at night with full headlights on. The European type of highway, not the Australian kind where wildlife is waiting to jump in front of the car :-)

Little mistakes that you can get away with in daytime come out at night, which in the end makes you a better pilot. You become more rigorous with, for example, positioning the aircraft in the circuit, or maintaining a constant rate of descent on final. Cockpit organisation also improves greatly, since you can no longer afford to not know instantly where things are.

An important aspect of the Night Rating is all the instrument flying you do, and the cross-country navigation using navaids. They're all things you see at GFPT and PPL level, just to a higher standard, which again makes you a safer pilot.

On a practical level, having a Night Rating makes planning cross-country trips a bit easier since you do not need to absolutely be on the ground by nightfall. Most people consider night flying in a single-engine aircraft too risky, and I may agree with them, but it's great to have that as an option if, for example, you run into unanticipated headwinds.

Finally, the Night Rating is a stepping stone towards an Instrument Rating, so that's one more reason to go for it.

If you have a chance sometime, try to go for a trial flight at night, many flying clubs organise this type of event from time to time, I'm sure you'll understand the attraction :-)

5400AirportRdSouth said...

I love flying at night. The transition from visual flight on the runway to instrument reference in the climb, with a black windscreen ahead, is a bit of a thrill. That moment where you look down and orient yourself to flying on instruments is my favourite.

I remember planning my first night cross country and using a couple of larger highways as visual waypoints. My instructor let me do that, all the way up to actually trying to find these in the dark. In our part of the world, if there are no cars on the highway, its completely invisible, as there is no lighting on the highway itself.

He let me muddle around for a bit and fully appreciate the error before we talked about some of the better choices I could have made.

Nice blog by the way, I look forward to following along.

Charline said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.