circuits flying Night rating

The Night Life – Nov 2020

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.

When the Brakpan Aero Club announced that they would be having a night flying evening it seemed like the ideal opportunity. Arrive at 4pm while the sun still in full force, have a few lectures around night flying, a braai and then set off into the night with instructors available if we wanted? Definitely an attractive proposition.

Despite a few days of evening thundershowers prior to Saturday, the weather couldn’t have been better – calm, clear and warm – the perfect evening. The lectures were perhaps not all they’d been cracked up to be but some interesting points were made. Then it was time to braai (barbecue). I love South African braai’s where you buy a braai pack – which usually contains most of a cow for some ridiculously low price and then you trundle off to subject the meat to the open flame. A braai isn’t quite the same without a beer but we would be flying so none of that. I was able to touch base with some fellow aviators and reinforce my suspicion that pilots are, in fact, better than people.

As the sun set the noise of the cicadas began to be drowned out by the sounds of aero engines coming to life. There were instructors available to fly with us but I decided to go it alone given the stellar conditions. I was number 6 for departure at the untowered Brakpan airfield (FABB) and lining up with the orange glow of the sunset visible to my left, I gave all 115 horses under the cowl their freedom to gallop. As I lifted off the training came back to me – hard onto the instruments for the initial climb out. Turning downwind I looked for the field….. which had disappeared. Crap.

OK, I said to myself, you know the landmarks. “Aim for abeam the casino which is under final approach, make your base and see how it looks.”

Turning base I saw the runway lights come into view and I remembered that these are the flush mounted lights which are only visible some degrees left and right of the centreline. I was able to make an acceptable approach and then did another 6 circuits – regaining night currency and gaining in confidence again.

IPhone 8 not so hot at night….

On the way back to Rand, the Suikerbosrand mountains, which are really nothing more than small hillocks, felt like they were reaching for me but I kept well above their clutches. Despite listening carefully, I was unable to detect any evidence of auto-rough on the engine either. Apart from briefly losing Rand airport due to me stupidly following a helicopter which I believed to be on downwind, I was able to safely land and get the plane tucked away – night currency achieved again.

Subsequently I have done a few night circuit sessions at Rand – best part of this is that it’s quiet and once the tower closes they can’t charge landing fees! I’ve resolved to keep flying at night every 6 weeks or so to keep that currency up.

3 replies on “The Night Life – Nov 2020”

I absolutely love night flying, though I recognize that it comes with additional risks. In the US, there is no separate night rating, it comes as a package deal with the private pilot certificate. Because I live in the north and our winter days are quite short, my instructor believed that his students should receive more than the minimum amount of night training. Good on him.

But it was still not enough for me. I did most of my night training during the winter under clear skies and over snowy landscapes. A little moonlight goes a long way in those conditions and, though it was nighttime per the clock, there was almost always a lot of ambient light.

I did not think anything of this until my first solo flight post-certification at night. I chose a dark night without realizing how that would affect the experience. Very high overcast, no moon, too warm for there to be reflective snow on the ground. It was DARK. I still remember rolling for takeoff and pitching to takeoff attitude. As soon as the airplane broke ground, the runway lighting was blocked by the rest of the airframe. All visual references out the windscreen immediately VANISHED. I was in a black void – it could have been outer space. This took me COMPLETELY by surprise. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to fly the instruments (as a newly-minted private pilot, that might not be a given) and I had an overall positive outcome. 18 years later, I target dark nights for nighttime proficiency flights because I realize what a profound difference it makes.

This was one of those examples of the private pilot certificate being a “license to learn”, cliché as that sounds.

No question! I am pretty selective about the nights I’ll fly. I either want a clear sky or a very high overcast. Evening Cb activity in the vicinity would be an automatic “no”. I’m generally not interested in night IMC, either.

I had an incident about ten years ago when I was returning home at night and saw the lights of a nearby city vanish in an instant. Realizing that there must have been something in the way, I turned 90 degrees to avoid the inevitable cloud. Nope. Too late. Into the cloud I went at night as a VFR-only pilot. It all worked out OK, but that moment provided the last little bit of energy needed to overcome the activation barrier for IFR training.

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