I was very keen to get my night rating. So keen, in fact that I went straight from my PPL into night training. There was a lot to be said for the night rating – extra hours of sim time, extra instrument time, and the joy of flying at night where it is generally smooth and calm.
Once I got the rating though, there was no need to fly at night, and moving the aircraft to Baragwanath effectively put paid to any desire to fly at night due to the inability of the locals to stop stealing the runway lights – no night facilities were available at all. One of the driving factors for moving to Rand airport was that there were good night flying facilities. I was still reticent to become current at night again – mostly I was somewhat worried about getting into trouble.
As much as May is a flying administration month with medicals and license renewals (did I mention it took 9 weeks to get my license renewal back from submission to collection?), August/September is annual time.
Last year I had a big shock in that I had to pony up for the 5yearly rubber hose replacement, so I was hoping for a less significant annual inspection this time round. Annual time is funny, because it forces one to take a look at the hourly cost of ownership of the aircraft for the previous year – and this obviously depends on the number of hours flown. So the denominator this year is much lower than last year because of the lockdown. Last annual year I flew 65hours. This year, 44…
Some of the best video I’ve seen on YouTube of flying is in the evening – after the sun has set. Being able to fly at night obviously extends the useful flying day and also improves the options for waiting out weather and other potential delays. I’m a firm believer in having options to decrease the risk of acute get-there-itis.
With this in mind I’m setting off on my first post-PPL rating – the night rating. Interestingly we have the night rating as a separate rating instead of built into the PPL like it is in the United States. The requirements are not onerous but definitely stipulate dedicated experience in the dark – at least 3 circuits at night (I’ll be doing many more), 10 hours of instrument training (5 of which can be in the sim), a 150nm cross country by night and a theoretical exam.
As it stands currently, I’ve done 7 odd hours in the sim – all hard IFR flying and have enjoyed it quite a lot – I’m sure it’s the wasted youth playing Microsoft Flight simulator but at least I have some theoretical knowledge to hang onto that experience. So it’s actual night time flying I need – and this is what I did last night…
Date of Flight
19 July 2018
FALA(Lanseria, Johannesburg) - FALA
So. Flying at night. It’s… well…. dark. In fact this surprised me because I was anticipating that the lights on the plane would be better than they are. They’re not great for taxiing on the apron so that took a little getting used to. The lighting on the taxiways at Lanseria is great so that wasn’t an issue. No delays fro other aircraft on the field while taxiing which is always a plus. Run up and pre departure checks were as per normal, although I chuckled at my instructor when she said that we’d aim for the darkest patch off the end of the runway if we lost and engine, we’d turn on the landing light, and if we didn’t like what we saw we’d turn it off again. This did bring home the stark reality of night flying – it’s really difficult to find a safe landing spot should the big fan in front decide to stop. Lining up on 07 you get the sense of how dark it is – a row of lights leading out into almost infinity and just blackness beyond – not a sliver of moon in sight even.
Performance in ZS-ZIP was pleasantly surprising – 9 celsius outside temp will do that and climb out was brisk (for an SR20). The instructor had me on the gauges almost immediately after takeoff and I flew the numbers – 5deg nose up with 50% flaps at full power gave me just over 85kts (Vy) so we were at CAPS height crossing the 25 threshold which was reassuring. Then it was head down in the cockpit. The aim of the flight was instrument navigation introduction – I’ve done lots of sim time but this felt somewhat easier I thought. We did a number of VOR radial intercepts under the Lanseria TMA – I must say that the VOR intercepts are reasonably easy with it being a command instrument – fly to the needle and the only tricky bit is remembering which reciprocal to use (FROM top TO bottom). Then we climbed out into the practice area for some upper air work – clean and configured stalls (no problem) and some steep turns – again not an issue which is quite funny considering how much difficulty I had with them prior to my PPL practical test.
Then some timed turns which are challenging – essentially we work out an angle of bank for the rate one turn (TAS divided by 10 plus 6-7kts) which at 130kts TAS works out to be around 20deg. Then set up on a radial, bank in to the rate one bank angle, start the timer and then try and maintain 45deg of heading change every 15seconds – 3 deg per second. Not quite as easy as it sounds but very rewarding to get right. These will be useful later in IF training when it comes to holding patterns and procedure turns. Then it was time for some ADF work. ADF navigation puzzles me from a number of aspects. Firstly, it’s a big drain on my brain to figure out which way to turn each time and secondly, they’re essentially obsolete. They’re so obsolete, in fact that our 2004 model SR20 G2 has no ADF radio on board. As a result, we have to bodge an ADF navigation exercise by using the bearing needle on the HSI to point to a GPS location and then fly using that as an ADF station. It gets the job done and perhaps it’s ADF as ADF should have been.
Still, ADF intercepts are fiddly. Intellectually I know it’s a simple case of remembering where one is in relation to the station and turning appropriately. The little tricks – turning away from the desired QDM inbound and towards and beyond QDR for the outbound – do help, but they’re not intuitive – I’m guessing that practice practice practice will be the key to successful ADF navigation. Finishing up with some unusual attitude recovery (again, fun…) I considered we’d done some good work. So what is it like flying at night? I found it really serene – its you and the plane – I didn’t hear any nighttime rough running and the air was smooth (and freezing – note to self – take a better jersey next time) and calm. The lights stretch for miles and the dark patches do feel like they’re reaching up to grab you – I assumed all the dark patches are mountains because why would anyone put lights on a mountain? The best part for me is that the feeling is getting better – i.e I’m flying more by the seat of my pants than I have been before and it feels smoother – I do need to be a little bit less aggressive on my turns – I do tend to roll quite positively which works during the day but perhaps not as well under instrument conditions!
We decided we were chilled enough and headed back for Lanseria. One scheduled 737 on long final and then we were to roll in onto approach. The night time approach is easier, and harder than I thought. Flying the profile is easier than during the day as less gusts and updrafts but the roundout and landing was very different. The instructor was following me on the controls – we went over the threshold at what I felt was the right height having had 2 red and 2 white on the PAPI the whole way down. Then she says “do you feel like you’re sitting on the runway?” and I say, “Um… yes?” and she says, “OK, go to idle” and we touch down light as a feather – best landing ever I think. Which would be awesome, except in my mind we were about 5feet higher and I wasn’t expecting the touchdown at that point. This confused me a little as I was convinced that one would feel lower coming in at night. There is no centreline marking on the runway so the only visual reference is the side lighting – guess I need to pay more attention to that in the coming flights – which should be two sessions of night circuits. Can’t wait.
How do you make having a pilot license feel real? Fly with those who are most precious to you. For just over a year now I’ve been disappearing off to the airport for protracted periods of time and bringing nothing back other than stories of where I’ve flown, or how bad or good the conditions were or which exam I passed. I think it’s been a little hard on the family to be contributing (by managing without me at the house) but not getting any significant return.
So it was that after gaining my PPL (ok, long before even) there was significant interest from the family in going flying with me. There was much discussion, argument even about who would be first. “But Mike,” I hear you say, “You trained in a four seat aeroplane! Why can’t you take your wife AND two kids?”
Ah. And therein the rub. Most 4 seat aircraft are only nominally 4 seat aircraft on the South African highveld plateau. My home airfield has an altitude of 4500ft. ISA temperature for 4500ft is 6degrees Celsius. Only in the very depths of winter, when a cold front is passing, does the daytime temperature even approximate 6deg. So we’re by definition hot and high which degrades takeoff performance of normally aspirated aircraft – especially those with only 200hp on tap. Given that the flight school almost universally runs the aircraft with full/nearly full tanks, we are almost always payload limited in the SR20. The 22, on the other hand, with 310hp… not so much. (Which is why the only SR20s in South Africa are the 5 owned by the flight school. All the others are SR22s)
So, it would be that my wife and daughter would be first to fly with me. I hummed and hah’d about the routing. I wanted to do the city tour but decided to stick with what I know and simply cruise up and down in the flying training area. This turned out to be a very good call – as I was SO nervous that additional navigational demands would have seriously impacted my ability to fly safely. It gets real very quickly when your family is on the aircraft.
So how did it go? It was….. OK. The flying was good, the GF was quiet and I even threw in a steep turn to make sure everyone was awake. I gave the lecture (pre departure) on not talking while I’m on the radio and to let me know if they see any other aircraft – my daughter saw lots – I want her as my copilot – I’ll call her “Eagle Eye” from now on. The only downside was that it was pretty bumpy with the wind from the south rising up over the ridges and causing a little bit of turbulence. Landing was within spec (I thought it was pretty poor but the passengers thought it was ok) and just like that… I’d taken my first passengers for a plane ride.
More importantly, they both say they’ll fly with me again. This is the best part – because what is the use of the PPL if you aren’t going to use it to take people places? My little girl did get a headache which I put down to an uncomfortable headset (loaner) and possibly also being in the back seat without a cushion – note to self – remember the cushion next time.
My wife seemed surprised at how methodically I did my preflight and that I kept checking and double checking everything – I like to think I’m very cautious – this is what I normally do! I believe that I inspired confidence in her.
Date of Flight
7 July 2018
FALA(Lanseria, Johannesburg) - FARG(Full stop) - FALA
The second flight en famille was this last weekend – I took my mother-in-law and my son up. This would be a lot less pressured as I’d broken the back of my nervousness to carry passengers. I wanted to do some short field work so I took them out to my usual hunting ground Rustenberg(FARG) for a landing – it also gave them a chance to change seats – my MIL did the right seat out and my son back.
So FARG was extremely busy. I’ve never seen it like that before. When I called 10nm out there were 3 aircraft already in the pattern (one orbiting to drop parachutists) and 2 others inbound – which is a lot for an uncontrolled airfield. We’ve been suffering under a heavy high pressure system for a few days now – the QNH was 1038mmHg (30.65in) and I forgot to set to local until well into the descent which left me a little lower than I wanted to be for the overhead join but fortunately I was at the front of the queue and was able to recover on the downwind leg. Schoolboy errors..
The landing was (as should be at a shortish field) positive and we taxied onto the apron for the seat swap. As I’m taxiing out to 16, the paradrop guy announces he’s commenced his meat bombing run – so I ask him how many jumpers – 8 or 9 he replies…. OK. Then I ask where they are because I can’t see them from the hold short position and his response is to say “Don’t worry, you’re well away from them – just go you’ll be ok.”
Hmm. Didn’t seem like the best advice but after checking again to see they were not on the upwind and as I was departing straight out I decided to go for it. Didn’t see them at all. I even looked back after takeoff and didn’t see them. Oh well. I’d have been much happier to have eyes on but since the drop pilot didn’t even know how many jumpers he had, it seems like it wouldn’t have been that helpful to have seen some. I’d be interested to know what the procedures are at other fields where skydiving occurs. To me the safest approach would be to halt all ops until the divers are all recovered onto the field but I’m not that keen on sitting there with the Hobbs running while people drift down 4000ft under canopies.
But back to Lanseria we went only to find that every man and his dog was, in fact flying today. We were 4th inbound to the left downwind with a B737 on long final and 2 on the right downwind – Orbits, orbits for everyone! But the best part (after having to fly a 7mile final) was that the wind was blowing directly down the runway. I think this is only the second time in my flying career and we made an absolute greaser. Top tip – when flying with your mother in law, make every landing a greaser. Another 1,5h in the logbook and cross country time to boot.
I want to do my PPL(Instrument) so I need to log the cross country hours. Also starting the night rating so doing some sim hours too. The best part is that on reflection I don’t remember having to work too hard to fly the plane this time. Maybe I’m getting that feel – finally.
There is something about flying yourself for the first time with a freshly minted PPL certificate. No instructor to sign you out. Nobody double checking the tanks and the oil to make sure that you’ve put the caps back properly. It’s weird. But in a good way. I decided that I wanted to practice my landings and circuits mainly to keep current and proficient. Well. This was a lesson to me. This was going to be one of the worst flights I’ve ever done. 5 circuits. 2 reasonable landings. 2 balked landings (one from a PIO which got very scary very quickly – fortunately I remembered Thomas Turner’s One-Bounce-Rule and quickly got on the power and was away). The second balked landing was the scary one. I had a big bounce and wasn’t about to try my luck again – Full throttle but she just wouldn’t climb – so I ended up floating about 50ft above the runway for a while until airpseed built – in retrospect I should have triued to recover the landing with a bit less power to level off and give it another go – it’s a 10,000ft runway so there is almost always a chance to correct the landing – although this feels like cheating becasue not all runways are 10,000ft long!
So I left the field somewhat demoralised but have thought about it a lot and played through the scenarios in my head. I know what was wrong (poor airspeed control) and this is fixable – and to be honest the conditions were lousy – significant turbulence and variable winds on the final approach made nailing the airpseed somewhat tricky. Next week is another week – and it’ll be the first flight with my wife and daughter.