It has been a little over a week since my first night flight in the left seat. Looking back at my calendar for confirmation, it was the evening of Saturday, October, the 26th. It was a calm night with light and variable winds that consisted of a beautiful sunset filled with orange; the mountains in the background were radiating an orange and yellow-ish glow making for a spectacular evening twilight. Just have a look for yourself.
I couldn’t have asked for a better start to my first night flight. At my school, student generally book at least two hour time slots which allows for approximately 1 hour of flying and 1 hour of preparation, ground briefing, delays, etc… In my case, my booking was from 18:00 – 20:00. I arrived at around 17:20 as I typically like to arrive early because it gives me extra time to do things properly as opposed to rushing through all the things I need to do prior to taking flight. There’s quite a lot that needs to be done prior to getting into the aircraft and so here’s brief insight into what I do prior to accelerating down the runway and taking off.
The following things might not happen in order every single time I go flying, but I try to follow this order as much as possible. On my way to the school, I use my phone to call and listen to the most current ATIS at my local airport. ATIS, for anybody that isn’t aware, stands for Automatic Terminal Information Service, which is a continuous broadcast of recorded aeronautical information in busier terminal areas. This provides me with high-level information such as the current winds, current runway in use, altimeter setting, cloud ceiling, among other things. It’s an excellent way for me to mentally prepare myself for the actual flight (i.e. knowing which runway is active, wind direction/strength, and figuring out if the clouds may prevent me from doing certain exercises during my flight). Once I arrive at my school, I check to see whether my aircraft is available on the apron, and if it is, I make my way over to do a pre-flight walk-around. This pre-fight walk-around consists of a methodical walk around the aircraft making sure that everything is in order and nothing is out of place, missing, or broken. To simplify things, I check to see that everything is working the way it’s supposed to, that nothing is leaking fluids, and that the oil level is where it should be. In aviation, it’s all about mitigating risks and this is exactly why we do this before every single flight. I’d rather find something wrong with the aircraft on the ground while up in the air. Lastly, I will also check to see how much fuel is in the aircraft and whether or not there’s any water or particles in the fuel (i.e. this is checked by draining the fuel tank; because water is more dense than the fuel, it’ll sink to the very bottom of the tank making it easy to drain and spot). With this information, I head back to the school and begin my weight and balance calculation. I won’t go in to too much detail here, as I’ve already covered weight & balance in this blog post; however, I’m essentially making sure that the weight of the airplane including fuel, pilot & passenger, and baggage is within limits as well as that the center of gravity is within limits as well. Also, I check to make sure that all of the certificates (i.e. Certificate of Airworthiness, Certificate of Registration, Insurance, etc…) are legal and up to date while also ensuring that I familiarize myself with the aircraft’s recent history/flights by looking at its logbook. Any maintenance issues/repairs will have been recorded in the logbook which is something every student pilot should familiarize themselves with, especially if you’re not the only person flying a particular plane. After filling out the weight & balance, my instructor reviews it and signs off on it. Depending on the type of flight, we may do a quick ground briefing, but ultimately it’s off to the apron and into the aircraft at this point.
On this day, the plan was for us to take off from Pitt Meadows (CYPK), fly a left-hand downwind departure towards the east, navigate to Mission bridge, turn around, navigate back to Pitt Meadows and do several night circuits before requesting a full-stop and landing back at Pitt Meadows.
The taxiing and take-off were quite different from what I had been used to in the past; after all, I hadn’t really flown/taxied in the dark before. A big realization for me, and one that I had previously read about, was to make sure you really keep your feet on the breaks during your pre take-off run-up so that you don’t end up creeping forwards. It’s very difficult to tell if you’re slowly creeping forwards in the dark as compared to daylight. The take-off was relatively smooth. It’s essentially the same as during the day; however, your visibility is greatly diminished and I also placed a lot more emphasis on my instruments (i.e. attitude indicator, airspeed indicator, altimeter) than I would do during the day. During the climb on our crosswind leg, my instructor pointed out a number of easily identifiable landmarks such as highways and major roads that were all relatively easy to spot as they were very well lit. On our way towards Mission bridge, I was surprised by the calmness of the air and shocked by the realization that mountains, lakes, fields were all pitch black now. It was a bit un-nerving at first, but I’m sure that I’ll become more confident with every flight, especially if I continue my studying of navigation and the local area through my VTA. If I remember correctly, we were at around 3,000′ when my instructor asked me to name a few cities in and around our vicinity. It’s easy to spot a town/city, but harder to correctly identify it at first unless you’re very familiar with the area. My eyes were constantly going from my VTA to ground and back to the VTA. I realize that, at the end of the day, this was essentially a familiarization flight for nights; my ability to point out cities and towns wasn’t 100% (i.e. how could I expect it to be? I hadn’t done a night flight like this before), but I knew that it would improve with every flight.
Back at Pitt Meadows doing circuits in the dark, I was improving my approach and landing with every circuit. It’s definitely quite different landing an airplane at night compared with during the day. There exist several illusions that every pilot should be aware of. Primarily, the Black Hole Effect, which is something called the featureless terrain illusion, fools pilots into thinking they are higher than they actually are, causing them to fly dangerously low approaches. This, if not accounted for, can end very badly, as you might imagine. To be completely honest, after that lesson I felt like some of those approaches and landings had been some of my best to date, which is crazy to think about. Having said that, I did try out a new approach (pun intended :)) to my landings where, based on the advice given to me by some mentors, I pretended that I was flying a Triple 7. Believe it or not, this actually allowed me to perfect my approaches by better managing my airspeed and attitude adjustments. Typically, if your approaches are stable, your landings will be good as well and vice-versa, if your approaches are unstable, this will be reflected in your landings. One thing I noted as well, is the fact that you don’t get to see the runway in front of your until the very last moment when your landing light illuminates it for you. This means that you’ve got to pay even more attention to possible animals (i.e. coyotes, deer, etc…) on the runway because you won’t see them until the last second.
All in all, I was very pleased with the way that flight went and even more so with my landings. I can’t wait to try the same thing in daylight to see if I’m able to further perfect my landings. It really does make a difference! The next things on my journey to a night rating are as follows:
- Dual flight from Pitt Meadows (CYPK) to Abbotsford International Airport (CYXX)
- Solo circuits at Pitt Meadows (CYPK) during night
- Dual flight from Pitt Meadows to Victoria International Airport (CYYJ)
- Solo flight from Pitt Meadows to Victoria International Airport (CYYJ)
We’ve been having extraordinary weather this last week and a bit and so I had three flight planned for this weekend; however, due to some unfortunate circumstance completely outside of my control, all three flights had to be cancelled. Here is the reason why one of the flights had to be cancelled. A non-functioning position light on the right wing:
This is frustrating to say the least as it seems like a set-back and delay to my goal; however, I’m trying to keep my head up and roll with the punches so to speak. I’m trying to maintain a positive attitude and always see a silver lining in these sorts of situations. In this case, my silver lining is more time to study and write blog posts! 🙂 I’m sure that some years from now, I’ll be looking back at this weekend thinking that delay or no delay, it really didn’t make much of a difference in the big scheme of things. Have you experience frustrating set-backs yourself, and how do you handle them? I’d love to hear in the comments!