Night Flight

If your'e interested in what it's like to fly from Manston at night, I've put up the draft of a piece I'm writing for Pilot Magazine on this week's night training course at TG Aviation.

Why bother with a night rating? Much like the IMC rating, a night rating is a qualification which only a relatively small number of GA pilots bother to pursue, either because of the extra time and cost involved or because they can’t imagine themselves ever needing one.

But like having the benefit of IMC experience, there may come a day when the opportunity of landing after dark can make the difference between spending a night in a distant hotel or arriving home safely in time for dinner.

I’ve been flying since 1998 and although I have an IMC rating, which has rescued me from trouble more times than I can remember, I’ve never been too bothered about adding a night rating. More recently though, I’ve been using my Cessna 172 for business, as far away as, Cardiff, Leeds and Blackpool and as winter closes in, the available daylight becomes a problem. With the bright lights of Manston airport only eight miles away and open until late, I decided that adding a night-rating to my PPL would be a sensible step, removing some annoying time pressures on my flying and giving me an easy diversion choice if I needed one.

TG Aviation at Manston offers a night rating as part of its wider private pilot syllabus. Perched on the north-eastern tip of Kent, Manston, with its huge runway and ILS approach is a great spot to choose if you want to familiarise yourself with the procedures involved in flying to and from a large commercial airport in the dark.

My course instructor at TG Aviation was the affable Bob McChesney, having drawn the short straw, to stay behind and fly with me in the dark while everyone else went home. Welcoming me into a briefing room, Bob explained that the night rating is a minimum five hour course requiring at least three hours dual instruction, five solo take off and full stop landings, and finally one hour of dual navigation.

There are, said Bob, no written exams and no flying test but for pilots who don’t hold an IMC rating, a couple of extra hours instrument appreciation may be required and its important to remember that because VFR clearance can’t be issued after sunset, night flying comes under IFR rules and so I might want to brush up on privileges of a night qualification in Schedule 8 part B of the ANO and sections 29 – 32 dealing with (Special VFR) SVFR and IFR flight planning at night. - Night is of course for flying purposes thirty minutes after sunset but for ight rating training, the sun must be twelve degree below the horizon too.

Before sending me outside to walk around the aircraft, a PA28, with my most vital piece of equipment, a torch, Bob gives me a short briefing on both the importance of terrain clearance and gives a short lecture on night vision and darkness adaption in the cockpit. Map reading he warns me, will become a very different skill under a red cockpit light as all the main road features and other markings in red will disappear. “Although”, he adds, “it takes thirty minutes for your eyes to adapt to the dark. This can be lost instantly, with exposure to bright light and so it’s important to minimize the use of white light in the cockpit and keep it as low as possible.”

Sitting inside the PA28, I find myself struggling to read the engine start checklist under the overhead red light. I lean forward, peering myopically at each instrument in turn, particularly the altimeter, checking the QNH setting given to me by the Manston ATIS. What should be familiar in daylight doesn’t feel quite as it should in the small cockpit and after the engine starts, I almost switch off the red master switch instead of the fuel pumpnext to it because they now share a dull monochrome colour.

My first flight will be a familiarisation and dual navigation exercise that will take us from Manston’s runway 10, in a climb over Ramsgate harbour, before following the coast at 2,500 feet to Whitstable before turning towards Canterbury, Ashford, Folkestone, Dover and then back into Manston to land. As we roll through the blackness towards the Bravo taxiway, Bob points out the different colours of the lights, blue for the taxiway, red for a hold and green for the threshold and centre-line lights. He explains that the Manston runway lights are bi-directional but that you can only see them when the aircraft is aligned with runway. Edge lights he tells me are white and the last six hundred metres of extended centre-line lights are orange for an instrument approach. Manston has a PAPI system and so for an approach, I’ll also be looking for two red and two white lights showing in the horizontal line of four, to place me on the correct glide path for the runway.

Leaving the apron and rocketing past the blue taxiway lights and control tower towards the ‘Echo’ hold, Bob remarks that one of the first things a pilot will fail to notice in the dark is how fast he’s taxiing. I take the hint.

Power checks complete, departure approved by the tower with a right turn, and we roll onto the runway and accelerate into the darkness with the white runway lights flicking past us on either side. As soon as we rotate, I instantly fall back on my IMC training, select a ten degree nose-up pitch and trim for eighty knots. As a proper outside visual reference becomes difficult, Bob tells me to maintain a positive rate of climb based on the airspeed indication, regardless of the attitude indicator might display. As the aircraft settles into its climb I start to enjoy the view of the coast below. It’s a perfect flying evening and Bob points out the flickering lights of Calais to my right and Southend to the left. Once the Warrior is trimmed and level at 2,500 feet, with a Flight Information Service from Manston, he sets about giving me more detailed instruction on the many different things I have to look out for at night.

Civil airfields, he tells me, have flashing white or green lights he tells me but military airfields show red. He also warns me that it is difficult to see and avoid bad weather in the dark and a first warning may be an apparent glow from the navigation lights, or a reflection of the strobes being diffused throughout a cloud.

Reaching Deal an hour later and with a fine view of Boulogne’s lights across the Channel, we’re cleared for a downwind approach to Manston’s runway 10. In daylight, I know this route like the back of my hand but at night, it’s a different matter. Where are the huge cooling towers at Richborough power station which mark the limit of the Manston circuit? I have to strain my eyes to spot the red navigation hazard lights and without these the towers are lost in the area of blackness that defines the airport boundary.

It’s not until we join downwind that I’m able to make out the runway lights clearly and on the base leg, Bob takes the controls and pushes the aircraft up and down to demonstrate the changes in colour of the PAPIs and how the spacing of the white runway lights changes, closing up when the aircraft is too low and becoming much wider the higher it gets. Finally, he tells me to watch where the runway edge lights are in relation to the wings as he lands the aircraft. “Keep the throttle slightly open”, he says, leave it flying just above the runway and wait for the lights to sink up around your ears, you’ll be doing this tomorrow.” The Warrior makes a gentle landing and taking back the controls, I slowly follow the green taxiway lights into the darkness towards the TG hangar.

Day two of the course and the bad weather has lifted sufficiently for the next stage of my training, dual circuits around Manston. We begin with the standard night pattern; climb to five hundred feet, turn right over Pegwell Bay and then level-off at one thousand feet to join downwind for Manston’s 10 runway. With the normal visual cues missing in the dark, I look for the lights of the golf driving range and the power-station cooling towers and fly due west between the two, which puts the aircraft at roughly the right distance from the runway. The base-leg reference is the lights on the second roundabout on the A299 and as I start the turn, I complete my landing checklist and slowly reduce the throttle to 1700 rpm, selecting two stages of flap and looking for seventy-five knots with a steady rate of descent. As the aircraft makes its turn onto final, I notice I’m being blown to the left of centreline by a crosswind and have to angle the nose into wind to bring me back on line, the PAPI lights are showing two red and two white lights, telling me my descent is correct and at three hundred feet, I extend the final stage of flap and check that the aircraft is flying at seventy knots.

As we pass over the threshold I wait for the centre line to become visible under the landing light and gently start to level out, After what seems to be a long time, the beam of the landing light picks-up the white line and so keeping the throttle cracked open slightly, I gently start to pull back on the yoke, watching the white runway lights streaming past in my peripheral vision. As these come level with the wingtips there’s a gentle bump of the tyres touching the runway and I’m down, thinking it’s not as difficult as I thought it might be. Flaps retracted and full power applied, we leave the runway and repeat the exercise.

After four successful “Touch and Go’s”, Bob decides to make my life more interesting by simulating emergencies and turning off the landing light. He even asks Manston Tower to turn off the PAPIs to see if I can calculate my descent angle from the gap between the runway lights, viewed on final approach. Finally, his ‘coup de grace’ is to simulate a total loss of electrical power in the cockpit. From my point of view this is ‘lights out’ and the only thing I am able to see out of the corner of my eye is the ASI or more accurately the white, VFE, flaps speed, line on its face. The RPM gauge is as good as invisible.

“You need to be able to work out your approach from the look of the runway lights and the descent attitude of the aircraft”, say Bob (pictured left). I can vaguely work out my airspeed from the shadow thrown by the needle of the ASI across the dial and so listening intently to the engine note, I go through the same procedure as before, using the PAPIs to adjust my descent, gripping the throttle and mumbling the mantra that my friend, aerobatics pilot Denny Dobson once taught me, “Attitude controls speed, power controls height”.

Once again, perhaps through luck, rather than judgement, the aircraft touches down perfectly and with the lights turned back on again, we continue with the circuit practise until its time for the airport to close for the evening.

The final day of the course, it’s a Saturday night and the airport will be open until late. The weather has been remarkable and a “Bombers’ Moon” is rising over the North Sea. Tonight I have to complete five take-offs and landings and then find my way to Norwich and back as my final navigation exercise. One personal lesson I’ve learned since starting the course is that you need to keep everything you need within easy and identifiable reach in a dark aircraft, so I’ve taken to wearing a photographer’s style jacket with lots of pockets, with my reading glasses, pens, ruler, stopwatch and maglite torch immediately to hand.

The solo take-off and landing exercise around the Manston circuit takes me just under an hour and other than an executive jet bringing in a pop star for a concert near Canterbury, I have the runway to myself. The landings, if a little heavier than before with a different aircraft, are uneventful and my one mistake occurs when I taxi back in towards TG Aviation and overshoot the turning in the dark, forcing a 180, much to my embarrassment.

Bob is happy for me to find way up towards Norwich and I draw some lines on my map, in black, so that I can see them under a red light and make a note of the navigational beacons and approach frequencies en-route. I’ll be leaving Manston’s runway 10, making a left turn to meet the north Kent coast and will be following a westerly heading towards Eastchurch on the Isle of Sheppey, before tracking the Southend NDB over the top of the airport and from there, out to Norwich on a heading of 342 degrees. On the way home, I’ll be tracking the Clacton VOR before picking up the Dover VOR to cross the Thames Estuary and then the Manston NDB straight into a base leg entry to land.

With a limited amount of feature information from my map, particularly over East Anglia, I find myself looking for motorways and large towns like Ipswich, constantly using my stopwatch to calculate where I should be every ten minutes or twenty nautical miles. Before I left, Bob also reminded me that at night, there can be a distortion of signals on the coastal NDBs and so make sure that I cross reference my position regularly.

Southend soon becomes visible from its pier and the flashing white airfield beacon. I’m the only person in the air it seems and when I ask the controller whether I should call RAF Wattisham next, he tells me they are closed and that if I want to talk to anyone en route at this time of night on a Saturday, I should stick with London Information.

The journey across East Anglia towards Norwich is very dark but uneventful and the lack of urban sprawl across Norfolk is actually a help, because bigger towns, such as Colchester and Ipswich are much more visible as large islands in a surrounding sea of darkness. Back towards Clacton, it’s easier to follow the VOR towards the coast at 2,500 feet and from the floodlit port of Harwich, identify the Dover VOR for the twenty minute sea crossing towards the Isle of Thanet and Manston. The Moon reflects off the sea, revealing occasional passing ship below and acts rather like a second light in the cockpit. I’m briefly reminded of Antoine Saint Exupery’s books, describing the early Aero Postal mail flights between South America and Africa in open biplanes.

As the lights of the Kent coast become brighter and Margate flickers into view, I start a slow rate of descent and Manston welcomes me back. I start to search for the green flashing light in the distance that will identify the airport. When I finally see it, it seems a little lost amid the sprawl of urban lights but I know where I am and head for the brightly lit roundabout on the A299 which marks the extended centre line of the runway. From here, the airport is brightly lit, consuming huge amounts of electrical power, just to guide me back down along a Christmas tree display of approach lights.

Back on the ground, I help Bob put the aircraft away and he give me the most difficult part of the exercise to finish, completing the CAA forms for the night rating and writing my credit card details down so that I can be relieved of £70 for the privilege.

So was it worth it? Now I have a night rating I think so. Every time you fly, you learn something new and the experience taught me a number of useful lessons involving preparation, orientation and navigation. I’m now confident that in conjunction with an IMC rating, I can now find my way around the UK safely in most conditions and at any time or the day or night. Having a night rating removes one more risk of an unexpected surprise and the temptation to rush one’s preparations as dusk approaches, often leading to flying situations best avoided. Even if you don’t think you’ll ever need a night rating, it’s not hard, doesn’t require one of those dreaded CAA exams and the extra experience must be worth the investment.

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