Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Why flight planning matters even more at night

The first two dual navigation exercises towards my Night Rating were very different from each other. Thankfully, it was the first one that was very bad, and the second one that was rather good, so I must have learnt something in the middle. I'll spare you the usual blow-by-blow account of each flight and rather focus on what went wrong and the lessons learnt.

My first night flight beyond the confines of the local circuit took me and my instructor Ben from Bankstown to Canberra via Goulburn and back via Goulburn NDB, Bindook VOR and Camden NDB.

My airmanship was all over the place. Soon after departing Bankstown I realised that making any sense of the ERC chart at night was going to be very, very difficult, especially when trying to distinguish between the blue and the green lines under red light. The track I had carefully drawn and highlighted was also undistinguishable from the million other lines on the chart, and the large yellow streak of highlighter had disappeared.

It would have taken me five seconds to look at the chart at home under red light and anticipate the problem. But I didn't and ended up giving Ben a massive headache on the way back when I descended at more than double the standard rate in order to stay under controlled airspace. Staying ahead of the airplane is hard when you are reading the chart with your finger like a six-year-old.

I had also forgotten to write down the PAL frequency for Goulburn. No problem I thought, let me look it up in the ERSA. Where's the ERSA? In my flight bag. Where's the flight bag? On the back seat. I turn around. While flying on instruments. Where's my black bag? Which bag is which? I can't see anything. I hand over the controls to Ben who kindly accepts, at that stage probably wondering what he got himself into when he took me on as a student.

Ah good, here's my bag. I can feel the spiral-bound book, I pull it out. Bad luck, that's the VFG, which is also spiral-bound. Second try lucky, that's the ERSA. Flip, flip, flip to the page for Goulburn. PAL is 119.6. Scribble it down and tune it in. End of the minor drama, which could have been altogether avoided with five extra seconds of preparation at home, namely writing the PAL frequency down on my flight plan, next to the YGLB waypoint. Lesson learnt.

My two circuits at Canberra were so abysmally bad I still feel the full pain of utter embarrassment writing about it. And that was in controlled airspace, with someone telling me what altitude to keep and when to turn base in order to avoid the big hill not too far from the threshold of runway 30. The hill was named Disaster Hill, after what is known as the Canberra Air Disaster of 1940.

When initially approaching the airport coming from Goulburn I mistook one runway for the other, which threw me off right from the start. I was soon overwhelmed by loss of situational awareness, flying a circuit at an airport I had never been to before, even by day, listening to and talking to the controller at the same time. Which could all have been saved with preparation since I knew exactly which direction I would be coming from.

I was obviously very upset with myself after the flight. It was one of those moments I mentioned earlier when I wonder if flying is really the thing for me and if am I not deluding myself thinking I can reach the standard required for the test, let alone fly an airplane safely.

But going through the (many) notes I took during the debrief and after counselling myself on the topic I decided to make the next flight an absolute success by being thoroughly prepared.

The other flight took us to Cessnock for circuits via the Calga and Mount McQuoid NDB, then east to the Norah Head lighthouse and following the coastline south to Barrenjoey Head, a Harbour Scenic procedure at 2500ft and back to Bankstown down the GA lane.

Apart from a bad approach on the first circuit when I decided to go-around, the rest of the flight was fine and even very enjoyable. I was most of the time sufficiently ahead of the airplane and could anticipate turns, climbs, descents and all frequency changes. The only thing that threw me off was situating the aerodrome relative to the town of Cessnock. That was the only bit I had forgotten to prepare, and it came back to bite me. In the photo below the town is the yellow area on the left, which turns into a thin outline under red light.

How did I prepare for the flight? I had drawn a number of mud maps, one for each section of the flight. I didn't invent the concept, it is recommended in the Civil Aviation Advisory Publication about Night Flying. Here's what a mud map looks like:

It's a schematic representation of the flight that contains all the information I need for flying the flight as planned, and only that information. Obviously if I had to perform a diversion I would have to revert to the regular documentation. Preparing the mud map is also of course a great way to rehearse the flight at home. I drew my mud maps using only a lead pencil on A5 portrait sheets so that they would fit on my kneeboard.

Because we are navigating by instruments, we do not need topographical information, and angles and distances do not have to be accurate. I write down track and altitude for each leg, frequencies for ATC and navaids, boundaries where to change frequency, and anything else that may be useful, such as circuit altitude or forecast QNH for an aerodrome. Writing this I realise that one thing is missing, it is the lowest safe altitude for the area, which I would need for a diversion.

It only costs the time it takes to draw the mud map, and it makes a world of a difference. It is amazing how much difference preparation can make. And not just being prepared as I would for a day flight, but being prepared for navigating at night. Which by now you must have realised is a very different kettle of fish.

I knew I had to be very prepared for flying at night. I read about it. I even blogged about it. But for some reason I had to get burnt once for the lesson to permeate my thick skull.

Or, as I read recently, good judgment comes from experience. Unfortunately, the experience usually comes from bad judgement.


Max Trescott said...

Julien, I just got back a few minutes ago from teaching night instruction. Each year, I teach a Night Flying Safety seminar at AirVenture. What most CFIs don't teach (probably since they don't know) is that the night flying accident rate is abysmal! Less than 5% of GA flying is at night, but 21% of the fatal accidents are at night! Also, 15% of daytime accidents are fatal, but 30% of night accidents are fatal. So more planning and a lot more caution is required.
Max Trescott, 2008 National CFI of the Year

Chris said...


Nice post, especially the examples of the mud map. I was instructed to make a mud map for myself, but never instructed how - yours is an excellent example.

The ERSA I always keep close to me when I fly, I tuck it beside me. I reckon it is Air Services most useful publication. It has also doubled as an emergency chock, notebook, rainhat.

sylvia said...

I laughed in recognition as you listed your mistakes. Preparation makes a HUGE difference but so often I try to get by without it.

I've never seen the mud maps before, they look really good! I shall certainly try that.

Vincent, from PlasticPilot.net said...


I got my NVFR rating only because it's required for IFR. There is no difference between IFR at night and day, and I feel much safer IFR than VFR at night.

I remember flying NVFR during my training. My instructor pointed at a light patch amongst 20+ in the region we were overflying, asking which very town it was. My overall situation awareness was here, but naming an exact town... I just called it a good joke and continued flying.

After a minute of silence, I understood he was not joking. Ouch. Dial-in a local VOR/DME, find the map, turn on the red light, measure, and name something. While flying.

Julien said...

Thanks Max for the statistics, it really puts night flying in perspective... Do the figures you quote cover both VFR and IFR flying or only VFR? I think one main difference between Australia and the US is that Australia has a rating for Night VFR, while from what I understand the privileges that come with the US private pilot certificate include night VFR flying. Does the PPL curriculum include some night flying in the US?

@Chris: true, the ERSA is a real mine of information. I especially love the survival section, with advice for desert, sea and jungle survival. Australia is indeed a big country. I'll keep the ERSA-as-emergency chock in mind, that's quite smart.

sylvia said...

The UK has a separate night rating as well and you have to keep it up-to-date. I don't think I've actually flown at night since I did the rating so I would have to start over.

I have wondered about how this would work as I have a U.S. conversion - so theoretically I could have legally flown at night without having ever done anything as a part of the PPL. Bizarre.

Julien said...

@Vincent: the good thing with flying in Australia is that once you leave the big cities behind there's a lot less than 20 options from which to identifying which town the lit-up area may be :-) I think I'll be shocked with sensory overload the day I fly in Europe, especially in that very populated corner around Belgium, the Netherlands and Western Germany.